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The Gift of the Unicorn and other stories

THE GIFT OF THE UNICORN

 

and other stories

 

 

 

 

By Chrys Cymri

 

Copyright 2015 Chrys Cymri

 

Cover image by adrenalinapura from Adobe Stock

 

 

Chrys Cymri asserts the moral right

to be identified as the author of this work

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

The Gift of the Unicorn

A Mammoth Mistake

UnNaming the Beasts

Dragons Can only Rust (original short story)

Books by Chrys Cymri

Connect with Chrys Cymri

First Chapter of The Dragon Throne

First Chapter of Dragons Can Only Rust (published version)

[] THE GIFT OF THE UNICORN

 

 

The man halted at the top of the ridge. He propped his spear against a tree, then tugged a rag from his pocket to wipe his sweaty face. A breeze pulled the right sleeve of his shirt loose from his belt. He swore as it flapped against his side, and awkwardly tucked it away again with his left hand. The rough cloth rubbed against the stump, and he winced. The lacerations around the shoulder had not yet fully healed.

A flicker of silver caught his attention. He grabbed his spear, then crouched, gazing intently down the hill. There, between the trees. The creature trotted into view, the glistening coat refracting sunlight into shimmering rainbows. Four silver hooves barely bent the grass as she crossed the valley to a small stream. She lowered her finely chiselled head, her silver horn breaking the smooth ripple of the water as she drank.

He pushed himself away from the tree and charged wildly down the wide slope. The unicorn lifted her head, water dripping from her short beard. She watched him for a moment, the dark eyes calm. Then as he lifted his spear, preparing for the throw, she suddenly snorted. He threw the spear with all his weight, but knew even as it left his hand that he was still too far away. The unicorn wheeled, tail flicking as she slipped back into the trees.

A tree root caught his foot as he tried to follow, sent him tumbling to his knees. The fall jarred his stump and reopened wounds on his legs. He slammed his hand into the ground, then bent his head, gasping in pain and anger. So close, he’d been so close. A week’s stalking come to nothing. And now the unicorn would be more wary, harder to find, to track, to kill.

He crawled to the stream, noting the small flowers which marked where the silver hooves had stepped. At least that part of the legend still held true. Unicorns left blooms in their tracks. He cupped water from the stream to his mouth, the sweetness of the liquid testifying that a unicorn’s horn had purified the current. Two parts true. He felt the rage build up in him again. Two parts of the legend true. Why not the third?

He splashed some water onto his face, then slowly rose to his feet and searched for his spear. It lay near the stream bank, tip buried in the earth. He pulled it free and glanced up at the sun. Evening was drawing in, as well as clouds promising rain. Not a night for a man to be without shelter. He started down the hill, the hoof-shaped mounds of flowers encouraging him that the unicorn had also gone this way. Tomorrow, he promised her. I will hunt you again tomorrow.

The sudden acrid smell of wood smoke made him lift his head. He turned around, trying to identify the direction of the scent. The forest thinned as he carefully made his way forward, smaller trees appearing in the gaps between the giants towering above his head. Then he was in a small clearing, a cottage of mud-brick and thatch just ahead. Smoke came from the chimney, and he could now smell the warm scent of broth and vegetables. His stomach growled, reminding him of how long it had been since he’d last eaten.

He walked across the grass. A cow lowed at him from a small barn nearby, and several hens fluttered from his path as he came to the wooden door. ‘Good man of this house!’ he shouted gruffly. ‘There is a traveller hungry at your door. What would you ask to feed him?’

The door swung open suddenly. He blinked, finding not some farmer, but an old woman, who stared up at him with dark eyes. ‘What can you offer?’ she demanded.

When he’d been a knight, he had commanded, not asked. Had he known that only an old woman lived in the cottage, he might still have done so. But now, looking into those strangely strong eyes, he found himself saying, ‘I can offer you but little, for little be what an one-armed man can do.’

She snorted. ‘You be not proud, at any rate. Come in, and sup at my table. Doubtless we can find you some work in the morn.’

He started inside, but she suddenly stopped him. ‘Your spear,’ she demanded. ‘I welcome no weapons in this house.’

He glanced at the slender wooden shaft, the mud-flecked point. ‘I once bore the finest of swords,’ he said quietly, ‘and daggers with jewels set in the hilt. Would you deny me what I have left?’

The deep eyes met his. ‘Are you no more than your weapons?’

‘I—’ He halted, not knowing how to answer. With his sword, he had kept part of a king’s army under his command. With the loss of his sword arm, that was never to be his place again. The spear was a poor substitution, but it promised him revenge. It will still be ready for me outside, he argued with himself. The unicorn is hardly likely to step into a cottage. He propped the spear beside the door, then stooped to go inside.

The old woman nodded in satisfaction. She hobbled over the fire set in the left wall. The window shutters were already drawn, and he waited for a few moments, until his eyes had adjusted to the dim light, before moving any further. The cottage was small. This room held a small table, two chairs, and a long cabinet lining the right wall. Two doors ahead promised two further rooms.

He walked to the table and lowered himself into one of the chairs. His half-healed wounds were aching again. He massaged one knee with his hand, watching as the woman tucked her long grey hair behind her ears and peered into the pot hanging over the fire. ‘Be the time of year when I always make for two,’ she said, swinging the pot back over the flames. ‘It be only broth, from one of me chickens and some carrots, but it will fill us both.’

He said, dredging the words up from the distant past, ‘I thank you for your kindness.’

She clucked her tongue. ‘These woods be lonely for an old woman. What be your name, young man?’

He gave her a slight smile at the exaggeration. ‘I am known as Robert.’

‘Robert.’ She cocked her head. ‘I think there be a family name to follow.’

‘There once was.’ He bent his head. ‘There is no more. When the king fell, that name died with him. I am only Robert now.’

‘I be known as Elspeth.’ She poured soup into two bowls, and brought them to the table. A lump of soft cheese and a crust of bread were also placed before him. Robert dipped the bread into the broth, and chewed at the mixture. The cheese was crumbly but fresh. Made by Elspeth herself, he guessed.

‘You may lay yourself down in that chamber,’ she said when he’d finished, pointing at the door nearest him. ‘There be blankets and a bed. I oft have visitors.’

He obeyed, taking the candle she handed to him to light his way. The room was bare but for the bed, rushes covering the clay floor. He thought of the castles in which he had slept, the beautiful women who had been more than willing to share the bed of the cousin to the king. Now another man wore the crown, and the family name which had once given him such rewards could bring a death sentence upon his head. A kingdom changes hands, he thought, glancing around the grey walls, and the peasants do not notice. Just another name to shout when the knights ride past, another name to fear when food and lodging is commanded of them.

He blew out the candle, and crawled into the bed. The straw-filled mattress was prickly. He twisted, trying to find a comfortable position, tucking the blankets in and around him with his one hand. He closed his eyes, and willed sleep to come.

Unbidden, the images rose in his mind. He saw again the men of his command. Swords pierced their armour, sliced through bellies, intestines uncoiling to steam on the ground. Axes cleaved skulls, brains splattering over the black visors of the enemy. Even worse than the yells of the men were the high-pitched screams of the horses as arrows plunged into their heaving sides.

Robert felt the moment come closer as he relived the last moments. His horse rearing, taking the sword meant for him in its own stomach. Falling to earth, his armour clanging around him, his sword dropping from his stunned fingers. Then he got up, and—

‘No.’ He said it through gritted teeth, felt his left hand close into a fist, almost imagined that a right hand clenched as well. The memory dissolved. He brushed away the hot tears threatening in his eyes, then rolled onto his stomach, forcing himself to sleep.

 

<><><><><><>

 

Sunshine was streaming into the cottage from the open windows when he stumbled from his chamber the next morning. He sat down at the table. A straw mattress was comfortable enough, once one fell to sleep, he reflected. He’d not slept so well for over a month.

Elspeth came into the cottage. ‘There you are,’ she said brightly. ‘Put out your hand.’ He obeyed, and found two warm eggs placed carefully into his palm. ‘Just laid this morn. Will be your breakfast, once boiled.’

He watched her busy herself at the fire, marvelling at the briskness in the old limbs. Then a chill thought struck him, and he hurried to the door. But his spear was still propped up outside, exactly where he had left it. Relieved, he returned to the table, and was soon later breaking open the mottled eggs.

Elspeth sat across from him, her dark eyes meeting his. ‘I have given thought to what you did say last night,’ she announced. ‘You wondered what work a man with one arm could do. There be much that needs doing. Winter be coming, and I have not had the travellers in these parts to prepare me cottage for the season. Visitors have been lacking this summer.’

‘There have been many battles,’ he told her.

‘Aye, and what am I then to do? Shall I lose me home over kings’ quarrels?’ She placed her palms on the rough table. ‘I shall not. Do you search for something in these woods?’

‘I track something in them, aye,’ he admitted.

‘Then I offer you this. Spend part of the day helping me to prepare for winter, the rest hunting your prey, and there will be a meal and a bed for you here, so long as you desire to stay.’

His first impulse was to refuse. If I wanted food and lodging, I could have commanded it, he thought. But that was the reaction of Sir Robert, knight and commander. Not Robert the fallen, the cripple, the coward. And winter is coming, he reminded himself, for the first time thinking of the dying leaves, the colder nights. I will need a place near to the unicorn’s haunts to return to the hunt in the spring, should I not be successful before the first snows. ‘I agree to your terms,’ he told her. ‘What can I do?’

She grinned at him, wrinkling her face further. ‘You can chop wood, milk me cow, re-thatch part of me roof, build a new pen for me chickens, dig up me potatoes-’

Robert found himself smiling. ‘Enough, woman. Autumn is still early upon us. Leave some tasks for another day.’

So she set him to chopping wood. Handling an axe left-handed called for concentration, and he nearly cleaved his foot twice. It was a laborious process, moving a log into position, lifting the axe to chop it once, putting the axe down to move a new piece into position, lifting the axe to chop again. Despite his intentions, he found the afternoon all but finished by the time he finally put the axe to one side. He wiped his face, glanced into the woods, then started carrying pieces of wood to a small lean-to built on the side of the cottage. When he had finally established a rhythm to his chopping, he had actually found himself enjoying the work. Now he studied the pile of logs, and despite the blisters on his fingers and the ache in his shoulders, he was pleased with what he had done. Maybe a one-armed man could have some use after all.

‘You have done more than agreed,’ Elspeth complained at him as she served him a chicken broth with fire-baked potato. ‘Take the day tomorrow for your hunting.’

Robert was too weary to do anything but agree. He soon went to his bed, and feel asleep without any troubling visions.

The days settled into a pattern. In the morning, he would hunt the unicorn, tracking the flower patterns patiently through the forest. Several times he glimpsed the gleaming coat, the silver mane. But never close enough for a strike with his spear. Only lesser animals fell to his throws, rabbits and deer which he carried awkwardly to the cottage for supper.

In the afternoons, he worked around the cottage, taking out his anger and frustration in his tasks. If Elspeth asked him to chop ten logs into firewood, he would chop twenty. If he were allotted five rows of potatoes to harvest, he would dig up ten. In the sheer physicality of his labour he could forget for awhile the sounds of metal shearing metal, the sticky smell of hot blood, the sour taste of fear. And when he crawled into his bed at night, he was so exhausted that he dropped to sleep without being troubled by dreams.

‘You work yourself too harshly,’ Elspeth scolded him one night, as she served up yet another of her broths. ‘I have never been so ready ‘gainst the snows. I have more firewood than I needs, enough potatoes and carrots to feed several mouths, and your hutch for me hens has let me keep more for stewing than ever afore. You have earned the rest of your keep. I do not want to see you fall ill!’

‘No.’ He stirred restlessly at his soup with his lump of hard bread, wondering vaguely where she got flour from. ‘I want to ask lodging from you for the winter.’

She cocked her head. With the fire behind her, the deep eyes were shadowed. ‘Granted, and twice granted. But why should you wish to stay here? What do you seek in these woods?’

Robert dropped his eyes. ‘I hunt a creature.’

‘What do you hunt?’

‘You must know what I hunt.’ He met her dark eyes. ‘You must have seen me follow the flower tracks. I hunt the unicorn. I will redden my spear with her blood.’

He could almost feel her frown. ‘The unicorn be the gentlest of beasts. Why should you wish to cause her harm?’

‘Because she harmed me. And I will avenge myself on her.’

‘The unicorn cleanses water with her horn and heals the wounds of humans. Why would you seek to kill such a beast?’

‘Heals?’ He felt his mouth pull into a grimace. ‘Aye, she might heal some.’ He waved explanations away angrily. ‘Do not argue with me, Elspeth. I will only stop hunting her when the snows come, and once spring is upon us, I will hunt her again. I will track her down. And my knife will find her throat.’

 

<><><><><><>

 

The nights came earlier, colder. Leaves coated the ground, crunched under the boots Elspeth had made for him. He moved firewood into the cabin, filled their bedchambers with sacks of potatoes and carrots, checked barn, hutch, and cottage for any cracks which might let in the freeze to come. He did not always know what to look for, but Elspeth was always available to point out what he had missed. It became a challenge to him, to complete a task so thoroughly that she could only nod with approval.

He still tracked the unicorn, but was already resigned to continuing the hunt in earnest once winter was over. When he looked out the door one morning to find heavy snowflakes settling onto the fallen leaves, he resignedly made a final check of hutch, barn, and cottage, placed his spear into the lean-to, and returned to the warmth of the cottage.

‘Winter be a time for relaxing,’ Elspeth scolded him as he paced along the wooden planks which he had recently laid as a floor. ‘The work be over for the year.’

Robert slumped into a chair. He scratched absently at his stump, wondering why it itched at the change in weather. ‘I don’t want to relax.’

‘You deserve a rest.’ She turned back to her weaving. A small loom rested on the floor in front of her, the wool spun, she’d told him, from goats she had once owned. ‘Does your jacket rest ‘pon you comfortably?’

He shrugged within its warm lining. Then he caught the barb to her question, and sheepishly removed the coat. ‘It does. Where did you get it from?’

‘Many a traveller finds his way to me door.’ The clack of wood rubbing against wood paused for a moment. ‘Not all of them be as healthy as you. They come with wounds for which there be no healing. Such a one has passed his coat to you.’

Robert fingered a dark stain near the collar, wondering if it were from blood. Many battles had been fought near these woods, many wounded wandered away from the field. ‘I am grateful to him.’

‘Your shirt be growing tattered. Shall I weave a new one for you?’

‘Don’t bother weaving a right sleeve.’ The bitterness in his voice reminded him that he was calmly scratching the stump. He straightened, wondering how he’d forgotten about his loss. The unicorn will pay for it, he thought grimly.

‘You have done more for me than many a man with two arms,’ Elspeth said calmly. ‘You have done well ‘bout me cottage. Have you any learning in farming?’

‘My father believed in being a good steward to his people.’ Robert smiled slightly at the sudden memories. ‘We would oft ride together through his lands, always welcome at the tables of any of his peasants. He was known as a fair and good master, and I learned a little about the lives of those who till the land.’

‘And did you go to war to fight at his side?’

The smile dropped from his face. ‘No. I went to be at the side of my cousin, the king, though my father entreated me to remain with him to defend his own lands.’ He stared down at his hand. ‘But I did not win the battle for my king, and my father must surely by now lie dead, his lands confiscated and given over to a knight in service to our conqueror.’

‘I did not know me own sire,’ Elspeth mused. ‘And me dam be but a faded memory. All I have ever known have come and gone. Dogs, cats, chickens, goats, even a horse, brought me once by a traveller. But me cow has been with me for many years, and still gives milk faithfully through the season. A good friend to an old woman. But come, tell me of your sire and your dam. A winter grows long but for the talking.’

So he found himself telling her about his childhood, the castle of his father, the stallion he’d raised and trained himself, the hawk he had gentled to catch rabbits for him. He talked about becoming a knight at his father’s hand, and learning about honour and bravery. But when he asked Elspeth to tell him about her life, she demurred, saying that she had spent most of her life in these woods, and her story would only bore a man raised to the nobility. So she taught him how to cook instead. The rough-hewn cabinet at the far wall from the fireplace held clay pots full of dried herbs and roots, which she had gathered throughout the year. She showed him how any broth could be livened by a few judicious additions.

‘And this be baywolf,’ she told him one day, ‘used to add strength to a broth. ‘Tis also good to the easing of overheated hearts.’

‘Why, Elspeth,’ Robert said, teasing her, ‘are you a healer also?’

Her deep eyes met his, and he found himself stepping back, surprised at the pain his comment had raised. ‘Sometimes,’ she said softly. ‘Not oft enough.’

So the days passed uneventfully. In deference to Elspeth, Robert forced himself not to pace the floor. But exchanging tales and experimenting with herbs did not tire him as physical work had. Elspeth insisted on checking on the chickens and the cow herself, so he found little to weary him.

The visions began to return at night. Despite the chill in his bedchamber, he would awake to find himself drenched with sweat, his stub pounding in remembered pain. And even when he dreamed, the unicorn was always just outside his grasp, slipping away into the trees when he chased after her, pleading her to stop for him.

 

<><><><><><>

 

‘Me cow has disappeared,’ Elspeth announced one morning. She closed the door behind her and stomped snow from her boots. ‘She be a stupid beast. She has knocked the door asunder and taken to the woods.’

Robert rose from his chair, pulling himself from brooding over the dreams which had haunted him the past night. ‘She can’t have gone far. Was she by the lean-to?’

Elspeth shook her head, snowflakes spinning from her grey hair. ‘The tracks lead to the woods. She was a stupid beast.’

The past tense stung him into action. Robert lifted his coat from the chair and shrugged into the left sleeve, fitting the right over his stub. ‘I will find her for you.’

‘‘Tis heavy full of snow,’ Elspeth warned, ‘and you—’

He was out of the cottage and the door shut before he could hear the rest of her words. She might call the cow stupid, but he knew how much Elspeth prized the beast. The old creature couldn’t have wandered far, not in this snow. Pleased to have an excuse for some physical exercise, he started following the tracks into the woods.

The snow quickly deepened as he wandered further from the clearing. The cow’s tracks were still clear in front of him, and he wondered how she could have traversed some of the banks. He was a tall man, yet he still floundered several times in snowdrifts hiding gullies from view. Once he broke through to find himself up to his knees in the still-running stream. Legs and feet thoroughly chilled, he decided that he’d better find the cow soon, or turn back before the cold claimed him.

He was about to give up when he heard the snort of a large creature nearby. Pushing aside a thick thatching of tree branches, he stepped into a small clearing, and found the cow staring at him. ‘You are a stupid beast,’ he informed her, crunching through the snow to her side. He grabbed her halter, then paused to catch his breath.

They were in a strangely rectangular clearing, he suddenly realised. A wall of stone towered behind and on the right of the cow. On the left, a strand of small trees formed an almost impenetrable barrier. The only way in was the path taken by the cow and himself. It was also the only way out.

An idea began to form in his mind. He glanced around. Snow altered many landmarks. In spring, when the trees were covered in green leaves, the rock face would be hidden—until a creature tried to escape in that direction. He smiled grimly. Yes, he’d know this place, come spring. And he’d corner the unicorn here.

‘Come on,’ he said to the cow, tugging at her halter. She followed willingly.

 

<><><><><><>

 

‘You should not have gone for her!’ Elspeth scolded as he unselfconsciously stripped off wet boots, socks, and leggings. ‘‘Twere too dangerous!’

Robert propped himself by the fire and shrugged with more nonchalance than he felt. His head ached, and he felt very cold. ‘I know how much that cow means to you.’

‘You mean more to me!’ Then, as if surprised by her own outburst, she busied herself with retrieving blankets to drape over him. ‘How do you feel?’

‘I feel well,’ he lied, then promptly sneezed.

‘You are a stupid man.’ She swung the pot from the fire, muttering to herself as she mixed in several herbs. He recognised some of them, but his head was beginning to swim, making it difficult to recall their names. Ap—Apple—Appleworm. An aid to easing coughs and aches in the chest. Coronaunt, used to warm the heart.

‘I’ve got plague,’ he said flatly, the seriousness of his pronouncement punctured by a loud sneeze.

‘You have not got the plague.’ She glanced at him. ‘What you have could be as deadly. Did your sire never teach you aught? Do you not know the dangers of cold?’

‘We always had mulled cider when we went out in the winter,’ he said thickly. He found a scrap of cloth from his old shirt and blew his nose.

Elspeth clucked disapprovingly. ‘I must make your bed by the fire, lad. You must now be kept warm.’

He wanted to protest that he could get his own bed, that he didn’t need her help. But he seemed stuck to his chair. Every muscle ached, deeper than from any physical task he’d ever undertaken. His thoughts were becoming nonsensical as he stared into the fire, and saw demons grin at his pain. He was only dimly aware of her pulling his bed into the room, and forcing him to get into it.

Time slipped away from him. Sometimes he’d almost awaken, to find a broth being slowly spooned into his mouth, swallowing reflexively. Feverish dreams snapped at him. Again and again he was on the battlefield, his men dying around him. His horse reared, went down with a blade in its belly. He hit the ground, lost his sword. The young knight’s eyes met his, the blue depths full of pain and hope, then disbelief and incomprehension. Then the axe appeared from nowhere, crashed through armour and mail to sever the arm underneath.

And a unicorn danced amongst the wounded. When he tried to call to her, she turned and pranced away, her tail flicking her disdain. Then he jumped to his feet, a spear clutched in his left hand, his only hand, as he chased her into the woods, away from the battlefield, away from the place of his shame.

He was drowning in the images. There was no hunt here to keep them from crawling over his mind, festering in his dark depths. Robert thrashed, trying to free himself from their hold.

‘Robert.’ A voice was calling his name. ‘Robert.’ He thought he glimpsed a silver horn, touching his chest, piercing through to his heart. He screamed soundlessly at the pain. ‘Robert.’

He awoke suddenly, found Elspeth sitting beside him, her hand on his. ‘Elspeth,’ he said weakly.

‘The body should be healed,’ she said softly. A strand of grey hair slid loose, touched him on the shoulder. ‘But the heart clings to some graver illness, and will not allow you to heal. Tell me, Robert, what be ailing you?’

He closed his eyes wearily, chose the lesser pain. ‘The unicorn. Do you want to know why I hunt the unicorn?’

‘Tell me.’

It might be the lesser of his two wounds, but that did not make the telling any easier. ‘You know the triple legend of the unicorn, that she can bring even a desert to bloom, that her horn cleanses any water it touches, and that she seeks to heal any wound.’

‘Healing be the gift of the unicorn. I know the legends.’
‘I have seen proof of them all.’ He took a deep breath, drew comfort from the hand holding his. ‘I have seen the flowers left by her hooves, I have tasted water cleansed by her horn, and I have seen her heal.’

‘Some would say you have been thrice blessed.’

‘I say that I saw her heal.’ Again, the agony, the shame. ‘I do not know her powers for myself.’ He felt the hot tears, bit his lip to force them back. ‘After the battle died down, before we knew our king to be dead, our battle surgeons came forth to tend to our wounds. They completed the severing of my sword arm, and cauterised my wounds. All around was the groaning and muttering of the wounded, the screams of the dying. The eyes of a young knight, dead even as my arm had been taken from me, seemed fixed upon mine.’ He took another deep breath, pulled himself away from the greater pain yet again. ‘The crows were beginning to feed on him, to tear at my lost arm, and the uninjured of our army were already plundering from their own dead!’

The shout left him weak and gasping for air. When he could, he continued, ‘Night came, not soon enough to hide the field. Then, as the moon rose, she appeared.’ Even what had happened after was not enough to utterly destroy the wonder he had felt at his first sight of the unicorn. ‘She was beautiful, so beautiful. Have you even seen the unicorn, Elspeth?’

‘Never. There be only ever one in the world at a time.’

‘She’s not very large, only the size of your cow.’ He almost smiled at the audacity of comparing a unicorn to a cow. ‘Her coat is a pure, shimmering white, and even in moonlight it gleams with rainbows, like a pearl. Her hooves are silver, as is her mane, and tail. And her horn.’

‘What did she do?’

‘She walked into the field, picking her way through the bodies, the weapons, the blood-soaked mud. Light seemed to follow with her. I saw her stop before a knight with a sword-cut across his forehead. She touched him with her horn, following the cut with its sharp tip. Behind, she left only a scar, and he looked up at her, healed. Then she went to the next man, and the next, giving back sight, fingers, healing broken skin and bones.’

He took a deep breath, turned his head away. ‘But she didn’t come to me.’

‘Did she see you?’

‘She saw me.’ The night was engraved in his memory. ‘She stopped in front of me, the moonlight spilling across my body, pooling in my wounds. But she stepped back, and left me.’ He released Elspeth’s hand to hit the blankets in anger. ‘She left me!’

‘And that be why you hunt her? Revenge?’

‘Yes.’ But he kept his eyes closed, unwilling to meet hers. ‘I told you that long ago. I will have my vengeance. My spear will plunge into her side, and my knife will find her throat.’

‘If a unicorn dies from hate,’ she said softly, almost as if to herself, ‘a new one will not come, and the unicorn t’will be lost to the world forever.’

‘I don’t care what happens to her.’ Robert shook his head, finding his thoughts clearing. ‘But I want to get well. I can’t hunt her like this.’

‘The fever seems to be subsiding,’ Elspeth said. ‘You have found your reason for living.’

Robert sat up to accept the bowl of soup she handed to him, wondering why she sounded resigned.

 

<><><><><><>

 

Spring came suddenly. One morning, Robert looked outside, and snow still covered the ground. The next, and the thaw had begun, with large icicles forming crystalline daggers on the branches of every tree. Mindful of Elspeth’s scolding, he put on boots and jacket before wandering out to the lean-to. Spear in hand, he brushed melting snow from a log and sat down with his knife to clean the head and scrape the wood. When the spear was shiny and gleaming once more, he propped it against the cottage, and returned inside to defend himself against Elspeth’s accusations.

‘I would like to remain awhile longer,’ he said once he’d convinced her that he’d taken all precautions before venturing outside.

‘You have a unicorn to hunt.’

Robert shrugged, knowing she didn’t approve. ‘I’d like to stay anyway,’ he said quietly, rubbing his thumb over the rough table, certain that he could make a better one for her.

She snorted, and busied herself with the pot. But she put in two extra handfuls of chicken, so he knew that she was pleased. He leaned back in his chair, smiling as she began to list all the chores which needed doing. He was looking forward to physical work again. The dreams still haunted him, even more now since his illness. They’ll go away, he promised himself, after I’ve killed the unicorn.

But his tasks did not seem to weary him as much as before the winter. He returned to the battle night after night, surrounded by the dying, the knight’s eyes holding his for a dark eternity. Each afternoon he wandered further and further into the woods, searching in vain for the flower-filled tracks of the unicorn.

‘Be it necessary?’ Elspeth asked him one evening as he wandered restlessly by the fire. ‘Must you kill the unicorn?’

‘Of course I have to,’ he said, poking at the fire with a stick.

‘Then hunt on the morrow. The chickens can wait the day.’

He nodded, staring gloomily into the flames. The demons were there again, snapping at the branch in his hand. Fire, he thought. Fire would have cleansed the battlefield, rid us of our dead. Rid me of that knight. He blinked, and the fire was only a fire again, the demons sunk back into the ash.

The next morning, he half-heartedly fastened his spear to his back and slid his arm through the strap of a bag heavy with stones. He scanned the ground for flowers amongst the young grass and the winter leaves. She has gone, he thought despairingly. She has gone, and I don’t know where to find her. He felt the dark visions close around him.

A flash of white caught his eye. He froze, the bag stilling at his side. Then he stepped forward carefully, parting the branches of the tree. There, on the ground, were the flower hoofmarks of the unicorn.

Excitement coursed through his body. He took a deep breath, calming himself. His strategy had changed over the winter. Instead of simply trying to get close enough to throw his spear, he was now going to drive her into the dead end the cow had found. Rather than trying to hide his presence from the beast, he would have to broadcast it, and ensure that she went in the direction he had planned.

The past month had not been a total waste. The trees were now in leaf, which would hide the trap from the unicorn. He had also become well acquainted with the woods, so that he now knew exactly where they were in relation to the rectangular clearing. Even if the unicorn’s own knowledge of the forest was as great, he still hoped to keep her so intent on avoiding him that she did not sense the trap until it was too late.

Through the woods they travelled. Robert slowly manoeuvred her in the direction of the clearing, throwing stones into the trees to startle her back to the route whenever she attempted to slip away. His arm started to ache with the effort, and he glanced irritably up at the sun. Soon it would be mid-day. They must be close to the clearing. A quick glance around confirmed that they were, and he threw rocks with renewed enthusiasm.

He was getting closer to the beast. Flashes of sliver and white became more and more frequent, and he could hear her breathing start to labour as she dashed first one way, then another. The rocks forced her back along the path. Robert was walking on almost pure flowers, crushing petals of red and blue and yellow under his boots. The heady scent rose up to his nostrils.

Then he was stepping into the clearing, dropping the near-empty bag of stones. The unicorn backed away, her slender sides heaving as she suddenly realised that there was no escape. Robert smiled. He unstrapped the spear, and drew back his arm, pausing to savour the moment. Then he threw it at the unicorn.

The bright tip glinted as it curved through the air. The unicorn threw back her head as the shaft drove deep into her shoulder. Red blood spurted as she fell to her knees, the motion breaking the spear tip from the shaft. The snap of wood echoed through the forest. Robert pulled out his knife as he strode forward, all his hatred and anger focussed on the creature at his feet. He crouched down, grabbed the mane to pull the thin head back.

The deep brown eyes looked up at him. Pain shuddered in the depths, and incomprehension. Why? they seemed to ask him. Why?

He was suddenly transported back, to another pair of eyes, blood welling from another wound. His horse buckled under him, and he was flung to the churned ground. With his horse gone, his sword gone, his only thought was to flee, to escape with his life. His foot hit a young knight who was holding together two ragged ends of skin at his shoulder. The knight was part of Robert’s command, his sword pledged to his commander’s use, and the blue eyes lit with hope as Robert gazed at him. Sickened by the bloodshed, in fear for his own life, Robert turned away, but not before he saw the hope replaced by pain and incomprehension, not before he felt more than heard the axe which crushed the young knight’s chest, then rose to all but sever Robert’s right arm. And, unable to move from where he had fallen, Robert found himself still in the gaze of those now dead eyes, dead but still accusing him of betrayal, of desertion.

‘I didn’t mean to do it, I didn’t mean to do it,’ he found himself saying, over and over, as he was suddenly back in the clearing, the unicorn’s blood running over his hand and legs. The dark eyes looked up at him, silent but full of pain. He stared into them, wondering at the lack of accusation. The unicorn was not his enemy. His shame was not her fault. Her death would not block out his darkness.

‘Not again.’ He threw the knife away, heard it clatter against a stone. His throat seemed thick as he spluttered, ‘I’m not leaving another to die.’

He bent down and tried to pick up the unicorn. But with only one arm, he could not, and he found himself cursing in frustration. I’ll have to drag her, then, was a sudden, lucid thought. He undid his jacket, managed to get it around the unicorn’s belly. Then he began the long journey back to the cottage.

The journey took on the nightmarish unreality of his dreams. Time and again the coat sleeves would pull loose from his hand. Or the unicorn would slip off the material, and he would have to lift her back onto the jacket. The forest floor, which had seemed so smooth when he had walked along it earlier, was now full of rocks and dips, and each time the unicorn was jarred, he seemed to feel it in his own body.

Finally the cottage was in sight. He carefully dragged the battered jacket and its precious cargo to the barn, shooing the cow out to spread the unicorn across the straw. She was more grey than white now, her hooves dulled. But her horn still gleamed, exposing every knot in the rough planks.

Robert made sure she was comfortable, then staggered to the cottage. ‘Elspeth?’ he called out. ‘We need herbs, and blankets, and water. Elspeth, I’ve brought the unicorn to the barn!’

There was no answer. He looked through the rooms, then hurried back outside, checking the woods nearby. Desperate, he returned to the barn, opening the door and expecting the worst.

The unicorn was gone.

He closed his eyes, felt a new pain go through him. Did unicorns go off to die on their own, like dogs did? She can’t die, he thought fiercely. I can’t let her die.

He turned, crushed something under his boots. He opened his eyes to the shine of flowers. A trail led to the cottage. He pushed himself away from the barn, and followed the blooms. The flowers continued into the door, then stopped halfway across the floor, petals of white and red gleaming against the dark planks. They spread in the direction of Elspeth’s bedchamber.

Stepping slowly, carefully into the cottage, he crossed over to the room. He took a deep breath, then opened the door. ‘Elspeth?’

‘Come in.’ He obeyed, treading cautiously into the chamber. Elspeth was in the bed, a dishevelled mass of hair, leaves, and flowers spreading across her pillow. She said calmly, ‘A bed be more comfortable than a barn, and it lacks the cow dung.’

Robert found himself shaking. He groped his way to the wall, resting his back against it before looking down at her. His voice seemed very small and far away. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘Do you not, dear Robert?’ She smiled, shifted. The blankets fell back, revealing a deep, bloody wound in her left shoulder.

‘Why didn’t you tell me who you are?’ The room seemed to be spinning around him, and he pressed himself more firmly against the wall. ‘Why did you let me hunt you?’

‘You must tell me, Robert. Tell me why you hunt me.’

‘I did tell you why,’ he said stubbornly. ‘Because you wouldn’t heal me.’

‘That be not the real reason, be it?’ Elspeth asked gently. ‘Think back, Robert. Remember that night on the battlefield, when I appeared to you? Remember how I lowered me horn to you, so that you might be healed? What did you do? Tell me, what did you do?’

His fingers dug into the clay wall. The lies he had constructed were falling around him, and he didn’t know what he might be able to cling to once they were gone. ‘I refused,’ he whispered. ‘I refused to let you heal me.’

‘We have spent a long winter together under this roof. Can you now trust me with your heart, and tell me why you refused me?’

He twisted his head away. The wide blue eyes, staring into his long into the night. ‘My father begged me to stay with him, to guard our lands against the invader. But I wanted the glory of serving the king, of having everyone listen to me because I was his blood kin. I wanted more than just one castle and a few hundred farms. I wanted—I wanted—’

He took a deep, shuddering breath. ‘I wanted to be war hero, covered in honour. The king gave me a command, and the knights swore fealty to me. In return, I pledged my protection to them. But when it was tested…’

His stomach cramped up inside him, cutting off his voice. He gripped the wall even tighter, felt the clay crumble under his fingernails. Elspeth said quietly, ‘The young knight who lay dead beside you. Be he part of your command?’

‘Yes.’ Robert forced himself to move forward, so he could meet her gaze, know when she rejected him. ‘My horse was killed under me. I lost my sword as I fell. All I could see was death, all I could smell was blood, all I could hear was the screams of men and horses around me. My father raised me to be honourable and brave. But, I was—I was a coward. I turned to flee. At that point, I was only a coward. Worse was to come.’

He closed his eyes, but found himself swaying on his feet. He forced them open again. ‘My foot hit one of my knights as I turned. He was injured, unable to move, and waiting to die. But he recognised me, and he was suddenly hopeful. He expected me to save him. I should have tried to save him. I could have saved him. But—’ his voice threatened to strangle in his throat, and he had to force the words out, ‘—but I turned away, I tried to escape. I left him there, and he was killed a moment later, by the same axe which took my arm from me.’

The sound of his own heartbeat seemed to echo through the room, resound from the walls. Her face flickered in the tears he refused to shed. ‘So, you see,’ he said harshly, ‘I don’t deserve to be healed. That’s why I refused you, on the battlefield. If I had tried to defend him, as was my duty, he would be alive, and I would still have my arm. I don’t deserve to be healed.’

‘My dear lad.’ She lifted a red-stained hand to him. He took it and knelt beside the bed, looking down at her wrinkled face in amazement. ‘Wounds of the body, those be easy to heal. It be not your arm which needs healing. You have carried a darkness deep into your heart, so deep that you deny it can be lifted from you.’

‘But I don’t deserve—’

‘Hush,’ she said, and clucked disapprovingly. It was so much like the Elspeth he’d thought he’d known that he felt the first tear break free and course down his cheek. ‘Who be to say who be deserving? Not you. Not I. ‘Tis the place of a unicorn to heal, and you can be healed. But you must wish it. Healing cannot be forced upon you. Do you wish to be healed?’

He bent his head over their joined hands. The pain he had borne for so long was like a heavy weight, dragging down his shoulders and freezing his heart. ‘Aye, Elspeth.’

She shifted on the bed, touched his head with her free hand. ‘I be dying, Robert. No, do not try to deny it,’ she said as he tried to interrupt. ‘I be very old, in experience, if not in age. Even a unicorn cannot take the pain of a world forever. I be dying, and you must let your darkness die with me.’

‘I don’t want you to go,’ he said, the words wrenching from deep within him.

‘But I must.’ She touched his head again. ‘At least let me take one last wound with me.’

He nodded, unable to speak. He felt her hands drop away, and raised his eyes. The form on the bed shimmered, becoming half unicorn, half woman. The horned head turned towards him, the deep eyes meeting his in love and affection. The horn rested lightly against his chest for a moment. Then it plunged into his chest. He gasped as the silver spear sank deeper and deeper, until it pierced his heart. Then it twisted. Something dark flowed down the groves of the spiral, turning the silver to black. He felt the weight he had carried for so long drain from his body. The head lifted, then fell back, leaving an old woman lying on the bed.

Robert lifted his hand gingerly to touch her. Then she disappeared, the blankets dropping into the hollow. He stared for a moment, unable to believe that she was gone. Then he bent his head, and wept into the rough wool.

 

<><><><><><>

 

He stayed in the cottage several days, wandering around aimlessly, sleeping deep and dreamlessly. The agonising pain was gone, but there seemed nothing to replace it. He found himself picking up the herb jars, crumbling the dust of leaves and roots through his fingers. The walls were beginning to decay as well. New cracks appeared hourly, and the roof leaked when it rained. He supposed that the cottage was only ever meant to belong to the unicorn. Now that she was gone, it had no further purpose, and the woods were reclaiming their territory.

He finally emerged early on the third day. As he had expected, the cottage collapsed once he was through the door. He opened the barn and the hutch, letting the cow and the chickens disappear into the forest. A pack he had found in his bedchamber rested at his feet, filled with some clothes and food. He glanced at the brightening sky as he turned away, single hand closing his battered jacket awkwardly against the chill of predawn and then lifting the pack.

A glint in the distance caught his eye. High on the hills above, a glowing figure was leaping from rock to rock with reckless abandon. His heart surged for a moment, then dropped again. No old unicorn would dare such leaps.

But what else could the creature be? He found himself running up through the woods, towards the meadow where he had long ago stalked a unicorn. The pack jounced at his back, unbalancing him as he battered branches out of his way with his arm. Uncaring of the scratches left on his cheeks or the bruises on his toes, he fought his way through the forest. He emerged, panting, on the meadow at the same moment as the unicorn.

The unicorn laughed, a high, masculine laugh. He skidded to a halt several yards away, his coat gleaming even though dawn was still only a promise. ‘Well met on this lovely morn!’ he shouted, his long tail flicking merrily over his flanks.

Robert swung the pack to the ground, feeling suddenly very old and tired. ‘I thought there was only one unicorn.’

‘There be only one unicorn at any one time. We take the duty in turns.’ He bent his head to polish his silver horn against his shiny hide, then turned back to him. ‘She did not die from hatred, so I be able to replace her.’

‘You could never replace her,’ Robert said without thinking.

‘Now, now.’ The unicorn’s tone was so similar to Elspeth’s scolding that Robert blinked. ‘Show to others the same compassion as be shown to you.’

‘But I didn’t want her to die,’ Robert said stubbornly. ‘She didn’t have to die for me.’

‘That be her choice to make. Who are you to gainsay it? Do not lessen her gift.’

‘But what am I supposed to do with it?’ Robert demanded.

‘You humans!’ the unicorn exclaimed. ‘Be your life fixed and set? Be you not free to move and act? Make reparations! Make your peace with your sire—he awaits you on his lands, which he has defended from the invaders of your kingdom. Make your peace with the family of the knight you did permit to be slain—he left a young lady and a child without a home. You have accepted forgiveness. Now make reparations!’

Robert smiled, the unicorn’s imperiousness reminding him of Elspeth. ‘You’re right. Thank you.’

The unicorn bobbed his head. ‘I be sent to perform one last healing. A last from her, a first from me.’ He pranced forward, and Robert braced himself, wondering if the sharp horn were going to be plunged into his chest. But the thin tip merely touched his right shoulder. ‘That be all—and I be away!’ the unicorn shouted, his tail flowing behind him like quicksilver as he galloped into the woods.

Robert found himself smiling again. The sun finally struggled over the hills, touching the flowering meadow with weak sunshine. He took one last breath of the fresh air, then bent down to retrieve his pack. Without thinking, he picked it up with his right arm and threw it over his shoulder.

And stopped, amazed, to look at his right hand.

A MAMMOTH MISTAKE

 

Richard straightened, panting but pleased with his performance over the last few minutes. He was more out of breath than he would have liked, and his knuckles hurt from the punch he’d thrown. However, there was a deep, masculine satisfaction in coming out the better in a fight.

‘There, that ought to do it.’ David finished tightening the twine around the arms of their intruder, binding him firmly to the old chair. ‘Let’s see what we’ve got here.’

Richard stepped back to switch on the main overhead lights. Disappointment punctured his pleasure. An old man sat blinking under the brightness, his old skin almost as pale as the fossilised bones spread over the nearby worktables. ‘My bonds are disrupting my circulation,’ he told them petulantly.

‘Serves you right,’ David grunted. ‘You’re the one who broke into the museum.’

‘You should not be here,’ the old man continued in an English accent. ‘You leave promptly at five o’clock, and that other ruffian departs equally promptly at six. I have timed you for months. You should be at home now.’

‘Tell me about it.’ Richard snagged a chair and sat down. Georgie, David’s long-haired dachshund, who had been more of a hindrance than a help during the scuffle, came over for a scratch. ‘I was looking forward to a couple of beers and a night in front of the box. You just picked the wrong night, fella.’

‘You should not be here.’

‘Paleontologists prerogative.’ David leaned back against a worktable. ‘So, mister, what did you break in for? There’s nothing valuable in here, just a lot of dinosaur bones.’

The man’s glasses had been knocked during the struggle, and he had to cock his head to look through them properly. ‘I have no desire to provide you with any information.’

‘Sure you don’t.’ Richard yawned. It was late. He and David had just about finished tagging the new skeleton when the sound of a lock being jimmied had made them turn out the lights and lie in wait. What had been a prank turned, momentarily, into something far more thrilling. But now the excitement was over, and he wanted to head home. ‘We’ll just call the police and let them deal with you.’

‘No, not the police.’ The man’s hands twitched helplessly under the packing twine. ‘They would certainly confiscate my collection, and then I would be forced to begin anew.’

‘Collection?’ Richard followed the man’s reluctant nod to a small backpack, lying to one side of the door.

‘Be careful, Rich,’ David warned.

‘Come off it, Dave.’ Richard picked the bag up by the straps. It was a lot heavier than he’d expected. ‘Who’d want to blow up this place?’

‘I understand minor municipal museums are all the rage with terrorists.’ 

‘I am not a terrorist.’ The man glanced down. ‘And perhaps you could ask your hound to cease chewing my shoelaces.’

Richard grinned. ‘One of his favourite habits.’ He put the bag down on a clear table. ‘Anything in here bite?’

‘Please be careful. Many of the items are fragile.’

David joined him as Richard pulled out one cloth-wrapped object. He unfolded the silk to reveal a small, finely decorated china teacup.

‘Victorian,’ the old man said helpfully.

David reached next into the backpack. This time the canvas revealed a plate, covered in blue symbols. ‘Ming dynasty,’ the man said. ‘Please be careful.’

‘I don’t know much about china,’ David mused, ‘but I bet this is worth something. Where did you steal this from, Jack?’

‘My name is not Jack,’ the man answered primly. ‘You may call me Lord Reims, and subsequently Sir, but not Jack.’

‘Right, Sir Jack.’ David held the plate up between two fingers. ‘See plate. See floor. See plate drop on floor. See many pieces of plate on floor. Ready to answer some questions now?’

Reims took a deep breath, the noise loud in the quiet room. ‘I reclaimed it from a museum in Taiwan. Please do be careful.’

David shrugged. ‘Keep talking and we’ll be careful.’

Richard let him retrieve the next few objects. A silver fork, a wooden cross, a small book of poetry. When it was Richard’s turn again, he found something hard and dry against his fingertips. What he pulled was short, dark, and strangely familiar. ‘A bone of some kind?’ he asked David.

‘Phalange,’ said the old man. ‘Human finger.’

Richard felt his stomach squelch. ‘That’s it, Dave. You can unload the rest of his bag of tricks. I’m not interested in grave robbers.’

Reims gave him a thin-lipped smile. ‘Pray tell, what is your occupation?’

‘That’s different,’ Richard retorted. He hurried to a sink and washed his hands. ‘All these bones are dead, fossilised. Not fresh.’

‘The finger was my own.’

David looked up from his perusal of the remaining items. ‘You’ve got ten fingers, Jack. I counted.’

The man sighed. ‘The finger was my own, in a previous lifetime. All that you have spread before you are possessions from my former lives.’

Richard gave David a look and mimed a bottle of beer hitting his lips. ‘That’s it. Call the police and let’s get out of here.’

‘Wait a moment, Rich.’ David fingered the teacup. Richard recognised the intense look creasing his forehead, and groaned inwardly. His partner was intrigued. ‘Let me get this right, Jack. You’ve stolen all these things because they were yours originally?’
‘Indeed.’

‘So what do you want from here?’ David swept his arms wide. ‘All we’ve got are bones.’

Reims leaned forward. ‘You have something more in your collection. Did you not return from Montana last year with the fossilised remains of the excrement of a Mammuthus primigenius?’

‘We did,’ Richard said with a shrug. ‘They’re boxed up somewheres.’

‘I need a piece of the excrement. Then will my collection be complete.’

‘Don’t tell me.’ Richard sighed. ‘You were that mammoth.’

‘How do you know it’s the right mammoth?’ David cut in, too eagerly for Richard’s liking.

‘It was my last memory from that life.’ Reims sounded wistful. ‘I recall studying the nearby mountains as I finished. There was a lake cradled by one crater, the shape of a horseshoe, and a long waterfall scattered down the cliff. In my entranced state, I stepped wrongly, and plunged down the slope to my death. Your expedition was in that area. I have seen the maps of your finds. I am convinced that I am right.’

David pulled Richard to the back of the room. ‘I remember that lake. It was like a horseshoe. Do you think—’

‘No, I don’t think.’ Richard jerked his arm free. ‘You heard him, he’s seen the maps.’

‘We didn’t sketch the rest of the mountain range on them, only our excavation site.’ David raised his voice. ‘Why do you want a lump of mammoth crap, Jack?’

The man studied them for a long moment. ‘What I tell you must never be repeated. The ramifications are—immense.’

‘We won’t tell a soul. Right, Rich?’

Richard shrugged. ‘I get the feeling no one would believe us anyway.’

When Reims spoke again, it was in such a low voice that Richard had to strain to hear him. ‘It is souls of which we speak, gentlemen. For I have discovered that it is possible to regress to an earlier incarnation. To do this, an intimate possession from each previous body must be collected and assembled in a precise order. I have spent decades on this quest, and you have within your possession the last link to my rebirth. I request your assistance. You have it within your power to allow me to exchange this pitiful personality for one more suitable to my personal aspirations.’

‘Now you ask,’ Richard pointed out. ‘Only because you weren’t able to steal it.’

The man’s eyes suddenly glittered under the flickering lights. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’

‘So,’ David said, his calm voice breaking through the tension, ‘you want us to let you walk away with a vital paleontological specimen so you can be reincarnated as a—what?’

‘A Buddhist Monk, sixteenth century.’ The man’s face softened. ‘He was a wonderful man, a saint, a healer. I want to become him again, for the rest of this lifetime.’

‘To be reincarnated as a Buddhist monk.’ David sucked air in between his teeth. ‘I don’t know, Jack, it’s not the dung thing.’

Richard groaned good-naturedly. ‘You heard the man, Jack. This is not a mammoth library service.’

‘Then allow me to use the item here, now.’ Reims’ hands were clenched into white fists. ‘It will not be damaged by the ceremony.’

‘And how long will it take?’ Richard glanced at his watch. ‘I’ve got a life, you know.’

‘Actually, Professor Branagan, you have no life.’ Georgie raised his head and growled at the man’s tone. ‘You left your wife three years ago and now, when you are not engrossed in your research, your time is spent consuming fast food and alcohol whilst watching meaningless television programmes.’

As usual, it was David’s grip on his shoulder that kept Richard from doing something he might later regret. ‘Half an hour,’ his partner said. ‘You’ve got half an hour to do this thing, and then we’re calling the men in white coats to take you away. Got it?’

‘I understand perfectly.’ Reims smiled suddenly, exposing bright white teeth. ‘You will like my previous self far more, Professor Branagan. You will see.’

‘Sure,’ Richard muttered. ‘Do you want to find his mammoth while I untie him?’

‘So long as that’s all you do,’ David said firmly. ‘If he gets out of hand, set Georgie on him.’

Richard glanced at the dachshund. The dog was lying under a lab table, looking bored with the entire proceedings. ‘I would prefer,’ Reims said icily, ‘not to have any further contact with that creature.’

‘You should be grateful to Georgie,’ David’s voice floated back from the storeroom. ‘He’s the one who found your mammoth droppings. Barked and barked at me until I came over to them.’

‘That’s right,’ Richard told the man as he cut the twine. ‘He always goes on our expeditions.’

Reims made a great show of rubbing his wrists after Richard had released him. ‘I will need room to work. Move those three tables to one side of the room.’

Richard folded his arms across his chest. ‘Move them yourself.’

‘Indeed.’ The man nodded. ‘And should I, in my haste, destroy one of your specimens, will you exhibit your customary good humour?’

Muttering something short and dirty under his breath, Richard carefully moved the tables. Despite his best efforts, the bones slid out of their careful arrangements. By the time he had reorganised them, the man had spread his collection in a large circle on the concrete floor.

‘It is not complete,’ the man told him. ‘I am missing an item in addition to the mammoth excrement.’

‘Oh, you mean this?’ David reappeared, a box under one arm, the piece of finger bone on his palm. ‘I thought you might need a hand.’

The man scowled. David placed bone and box on the ground within the circle. ‘Are you certain,’ the man demanded, ‘that this is from the site which I mentioned?’

Richard bent down, studied the notes on the cardboard. ‘It is. We keep good records. Comes from not having a life.’

The man placed the finger between the plate and a small doll. His hands caressed a flattened stone as he lifted it from the box. ‘It is beautiful.’

‘Only because it isn’t fresh.’ David took a seat on a empty table. ‘Now what happens?’

‘Now I shall begin the ceremony.’ The man took the last space in the circle. ‘I must not be disturbed for any reason. Do you understand me? The energies which I draw on are powerful and must be carefully balanced. Nothing must touch the circle.’

Richard cleared a chair for his own seat. ‘Right. You’ve got ten minutes left.’

The man smiled. ‘It will not take that long.’

From one of his pockets he produced three candles and a box of matches. The candles were placed in a triangle in front of him. As he lit them, the man chanted in a language Richard couldn’t recognise. Nothing happened. He suppressed a yawn, waiting for the embarrassing moment when nothing continued to happen.

Then he jumped from his chair as a band of golden light started at the man’s right. It spread around the circle, leaping from object to object. The glass jar glowed, the plate lifted several inches into the air, the doll’s hair blazed with sudden fire. The man lifted his eyes to Richard’s, smug, triumphant. He continued his chanting, lifting his palms outwards to cup the light as it flowed towards him.

Then Georgie dashed from his hiding place. David shouted at the dog, but the dachshund ignored his owner. Ears flopping, he galloped into the circle, and bit the nearest candle.

The man’s form flickered, thickened. Georgie backed out of the circle, his brown hairs glowing as he passed through the light. Richard was surprised to see that the dog’s tail was wagging furiously.

A loud scream drew his attention back to the man. The golden fire flared high, then died away, leaving the room lit by normal lights again. The objects around the circle were blackened, burnt. And the man was gone. In his place stood a mammoth, its head nearly touching the ceiling, small eyes rolling in panic above the curling trunks. ‘I think he’s made a mistake,’ Richard said into the sudden silence.

‘Yes.’ David smirked. ‘A mammoth one.’

‘For him, yes.’ They whirled. Georgie was gone, and a tall, naked man met their gaze. The man spat a piece of candle from his mouth, and twirled a dog’s collar idly in his hand. ‘Personally, I think it all went rather well.’

UNNAMING THE BEASTS

 

And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them; and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

Genesis 2:19

 

He did not know who I was, the man who slowly walked across his fields to greet me. I was not surprised. Although he had rarely entered the houses his kind have built for me, he still had an unshakable if but simple belief in my existence, and I had often found him singing an absent-minded praise to me while churning the fields with his tractor. But none of this would cause him to expect to find me barefoot on his land at the end of a crisp October day. His long strides quickly brought his closer. I straightened, feeling the awkward human flesh enclose me in its mucus-softened envelope, reminding me that I was two thousand years out of practice in moving arms and pulling air into lungs. The man stopped before me, said nothing, eyes curious.

‘I have come,’ said I, stretching the awkward mouth.

He hooked his thumbs into his battered belt, only his eyes moving as he looked me over, showing little surprise at my nakedness. ‘And you are who?’

‘The Creator. Spirit-of-All. You would call me God.’

The man’s face crinkled. Amusement shone in the blue depths of his eyes. ‘Sure. If you’d like. Where did you escape from?’

I touched his mind then, finding that spark of myself which resided deep in his soul. His mouth slacked open, a thin cry squeaking from his throat. He dropped to his knees, the soft soil dusting his blue jeans. ‘My Lord,’ he whispered.

I drew back. ‘Stand,’ I said to him. He gulped. The noise reminded me of my flesh shell, and the skin twitched, irritated by the strong sun and the gathering flies. ‘Stand,’ said I again. And the man, slow upon trembling knees, obeyed.

‘Why—me?’ He swallowed. My skin twitched. ‘Am I—supposed to tell someone something?’

‘No message.’ I shifted the body, felt muscles slide against muscle in all but forgotten slickness. ‘I speak only to you. You because you are a farmer, role-simple… I find workers of the soil and tillers of the sea most like unto me. The ancient earth is at your side.’

He nodded, then whitened at my slight smile. I thought for a moment of Simon, my Peter, who had flung curses in my face, taunted me to be more like the Jehovah of his countrymen’s angry history. I missed his fire in the man now before me. No matter—this one would not know me for long. ‘What do you want me to do, Lord?’

‘Walk with me. Listen to my words.’ I carefully stretched out one foot, then the other, the earth crumbling loosely under the ridged skin. ‘I have come to reclaim my world. It is only proper and right that I give notice to humanity. I have chosen you as the representative of your race. So I tell you this: I am removing the earth from your hands.’

The man glanced down at his soil-darkened hands, rubbed them together. The dry skin rasped. ‘What’re you going to do?’

I looked up at the mountains, white-capped in the distance. ‘I will UnName. I will UnName it all.’

The man breathed in deeply. Carefully. His lungs squelched, and he coughed the remnants of a recent cold. ‘UnName?’

I turned towards him. This time, he did not shrink from my gaze. I felt him straighten, gather strength, his reflection shining in my eyes. ‘I am going to UnName everything. The earth and the rocks—they shall have no name. The grasses and the bush—they shall be without label. The trees and the hills will raise up unburdened heads. Free shall be the birds and the fishes, and all the beasts through the seas and above and below and upon the earth shall be separate from one another nevermore. All which was once given will return unto me, and I will give it rest.’

The farmer looked down at his mud-cracked boots. An Aquinas would have asked for the Cause of my decision. An Anselm would have argued that a creature Named was more perfect that one without a Name. But my farmer was neither, nor was he a John to tell me that I had spent too long in the crowds and needed rest. The man met my eyes, questions tumbling over in his mind like the puppies with which his daughter had played this morning. But he only asked, ‘Will we be all right?’

I felt suddenly weary. The flesh hung heavily upon me, one so long removed from it. ‘I have no choice.’ And then I left, allowing the body to drop back to the dust from which it had been formed.

I began my work slowly. The hills did not murmur when they found themselves Nameless; they continued to graze the land, unperturbed. Mountains thought deeply about my decision, debating it through the earth in the slow drip of lava, then suddenly agreed. Trees flung their names enthusiastically from their branches, and in such rapture that the insects, as always easily influenced by fashion, soon followed suit.

It was when the animals had loosened themselves from their bonds that I once again visited my farmer. I found him standing morosely in his field, a handful of earth sifting through his fingers. The crisp smell of rain blew down from the distant hills, and a storm was also clouding the man’s round face. ‘This morning,’ he began to me, ‘this morning—I can’t seem to remember what those brown things my daughter plays with are called. Or the name of the white feathered animals that scratch around my yard.’

There was a fear in his eyes, the same fear which was spreading across the earth. ‘So it must be,’ I said, longing to ease that fear.

‘But you gave them to us.’ My farmer had been reading his Bible. ‘You told Adam that everything was his, and he was to be—’

Sudden understanding silenced him. I gazed into his blue-grey eyes. The wind ruffled our hair. ‘I meant you to be stewards. You were to guard my world, my creatures, my children. But you placed metal in their mouths, twisted rings through their noses. You chopped tails and trimmed ears, taking what you wanted and discarding the rest. The things of the earth were twisted to your purposes. You chose to control, rather than to co-exist. So you will be allowed to Name no longer.’

The farmer’s last question hung in the air, mingled with the dust of my leaving. ‘But what will happen to us?’ I steeled my resolve. I would save the earth, before the human race could destroy my creation.

At last I lifted the names from their machines, the clicking monstrosities which I would never have created. The humans cried out to each other, and found their words without meaning. They left their poison factories, their workplaces, their homes, and wandered lost through their concrete and steel jungles, dying on their greenless streets.

I felt their despair. It dug deep into the remembered scars of remembered hands and feet, and I recalled my covenant, sealed in my own blood. So I fed them with manna, glistening clear-white every morning on the grass, cracking the streets of the cities, littering the snow.

Then I touched every human, in the spark of love which is my signature on their souls. My children, said I to them. I brought forward the beasts of my world, the furred runners and feathered hunters, and touched the many swimmers. Meet your brothers. Greet your sisters. You are now one. Go in peace.

I withdrew. The humans stared at one another, eyes dulled, the fire gone from their understanding. Then a farmer walked slowly to a doe. She sniffed his trembling hand, stepped forward with a wolf to rub him in welcome. A child laughed as several rats played at her feet. A woman smiled, and went into the forest with a panther to gather food for their evening meal.

DRAGONS CAN ONLY RUST

The original short story from 1984

 

The sun returned slowly to earth, dragging a vortex of reds, purples, oranges, and greens down after it. He moved closer to her, until their wings rubbed together. The last rays of sunlight glittered on her eyes, and picked out tiny points of light from her green scales. His nostrils flared as he took a deep breath. This was the best part of the day, standing with her when darkness came.

Vomer turned her wedge-shaped head towards him. ‘Gonard, the Master is going to unmake me tomorrow.’

Breath hissed out between his teeth. His claws dug into the rock, and every part of his body went still except for his tail, which slammed painfully against the cliff before it too lost its ability to move. ‘Why?’

‘He wouldn’t tell me.’ She moved to the end of the ledge to stand alone. He felt something inside him jangling painfully at this break in their daily schedule. They should be going down to their burrow now, draping their wings over each other as they turned off their consciousnesses for the night. And tomorrow the schedule would be disrupted forever—

He whirled, and dove into the entrance of the Master’s cave. The slope down to the laboratory was almost vertical; his claws left deep marks in the rock as he ran-slid down it. He landed heavily onto the polished floor, a substance too hard for his claws to even scratch. His large wings almost hit some of the instruments spread out on the walls as he fought to break his speed.

‘Well, Gonard?’ The man did not look up from the long object he was working over as he spoke. The bright thing in his hand hurt Gonard’s eyes.

Gonard stood for a moment in the room of his birth, trying not to remember but still feeling all of the years that pressed down on his back. ‘Let me be the hunt-dragon.’

‘You?’ The man walked around the long table, coming toward him in slow, powerful steps. Gonard backed away. The Master’s power frightened him, though the man’s head barely reached of the dragon’s first knee. ‘Gonard, listen to me very carefully.’

He lowered head until his snout touched the warm floor. ‘I am listening, Master.’

‘You are but a dragon. You gained life on that table. I can name the materials that put the life into every part of you.’ The man’s eyes flashed blue-black, and Gonard’s tail disk trembled. ‘I gave you the ability to feel a touch against your skin, but nothing else. I suggest that you stop trying to imitate human mannerisms. You do not have and you can’t ever have emotions, because I didn’t give them to you. Nor could you create them for yourself, because all you can do on your own is rust.’

‘Dragons can only rust,’ Gonard repeated. It was the first thing he had heard at his birth, and the last thing he thought every night. Rust.

He turned and climbed up the slope to the cool night outside. If only he could fly, somehow escape his captivity with Vomer… He stretched out his wings, but knew the uselessness of the idea. Even if his left wing were not crippled, the wings, as large as they were, were too small to bear the weight of a dragon. Dragons can’t fly, he told himself as he folded them reluctantly. Dragons can only rust.

A scrabbling of claws notified him that Vomer was climbing up onto the ledge. She simply stood for a moment, her eyes glowing clearer and brighter than the half-moon. Although she was almost as large as he, he suddenly felt that she was very small and vulnerable. He would gladly give his heavy body to anyone who could promise to protect her.

‘He wouldn’t listen to me,’ he said stumblingly. ‘I—I can’t—‘

‘Everything must have its existence ended at some time,’ she told him, as calm as he was tense. ‘Even humans. How do they face end?’

‘They avoid the concept.’ The human conversation he had once heard came easily to him, as did all of his memories. ‘They say that they have souls, something which contains all that is themselves. When they die, it rises from their bodies, to go to a great good place where there is only happiness.’

‘So they never cease existing.’

‘So they believe.’

‘Then, believe the same for me.’

He hung his head over the edge of their ledge, picking out with his night sight the point where, thousands and thousands of feet below, the cliff joined the ground. ‘Dragons have no souls.’

‘Why?’

Dragons can only rust. How could he make her see that? ‘The creator of the humans is supposed to have great power, much more than the Master’s. They were given the ability to feel emotions, and so they have souls. The Master gave us no such things, so how could we have souls?’

‘If their creator cared enough to give them souls,’ she said thoughtfully, ‘would the being not also give souls to the things that they create?’

He wanted very much to believe her. But all the things he had seen and experienced in his long life crippled his hope. ‘I don’t know.’

Her sigh made him lift his head. She sat down, curling her long tail around her legs. The moonlight shone off of the flattened disk at its end. ‘Please, try to believe, for my sake.’

 

<><><><><><>

 

Gonard watched from his place on the ledge as the Master worked over the mass of materials that had once been Vomer. All of the parts were newly arranged, into something that, when given life, would not even have a memory of Vomer.

But, he reminded himself excitedly, the mist. A mist had risen from her body as the Master removed life from her. He felt his head tremble against his feet, draped uncomfortably over the edge of ledge and slope. Had that been her soul?

The Master stepped back from the table. He said something to the gleaming instruments. They responded quickly, sending out strange sounds from their positions on the walls.

The parts on the table seemed to become filled with purpose. They firmed together, then were hidden as a skin of red stretched out over them. Scales followed: small ones on head and toes, larger on the body. Two long, thin wings of skin took shape, and moved slightly.

The man moved to the head of the dragon. ‘Dragons can only rust,’ he said into one of the furred ears. ‘That is the only thing you can do without me.’

Gonard tensed, remembering well what came next. The Master picked up a small wand from the ground. ‘Get up,’ he ordered, touching the shiny object.

The hunt-dragon’s head jerked from the table as if a wire were pulling it. The rest of the body followed in the same, stiff fashion. Don’t feel useless and helpless at the control he is exercising over your body, he wanted to tell the dragon. He does it to all of his creations, to teach us of the power he has over us.

‘Move your left forefoot and wing forward,’ the Master snapped.

The dragon stretched them forward. Then it happened. With a screech that shook the cavern, he toppled from the table, his foot and wing twisting and writhing. Gonard found himself straightening with the same scream, remembering the pain that had gone through his own side at birth, crippling foot and wing. Sometimes even the Master went wrong.

‘Gonard!’

The Master’s command broke through his memory. He walked down the slope, stopping beside the felled hunt-dragon. He glanced at him briefly. When the power went wrong, the kindest thing which could be done was to take the life of the creature away. This time, the Master had been kind.

‘I need you for the hunt-dragon,’ he said simply. ‘Get on the table.’

He dropped his snout to the ground. One eye watched the Master go to his gleaming panels, while the other returned to the hunt-dragon. The neck had twisted around in the last moments of life, breaking open the thick skin. A thin, white-blue mist was swirling over the slit.

He pushed the skin away with his pointed muzzle, exposing the gleaming neck structure underneath. The bits of metal were arranged to move easily, drawn by long wires of twisted metal. One of the hard head plates had slipped aside, revealing a mass of intricate filaments. The brain of a dragon. The mist was coating them all, an automatic defense against rust.

Vomer had not been right. He could see now what a dragon was; a thing of metal and plastic and rubber, put together and given the semblance of life by the merciless hands of science. The knowledge thundered painfully into his head from some unknown source. Vomer was gone. There was no soul to carry her on.

The Master turned around. ‘I told you to get on the table.’

Her merely stared at the man, numbed by his new knowledge. But something inside him was far from numb. A chamber he had never used before suddenly swelled in his chest, filling up with a mixture of chemicals and gases.

‘Very well,’ the man said calmly. He turned his head to another of the computer panels. ‘Discontinue the functioning of his brain circuits.’

The chamber contracted, pushing the gas out. It ignited as it reached the air, flaming towards the obedient machine. Its metal bubbled and dripped under the heat, destroying the message that was about to enter his brain.

In a way, I have just killed my brother, he thought impassively. His eyes registered dimly the movement of the man’s hand, and the small object suddenly aiming at his head. The chamber automatically expanded, then contracted again. The fire surrounded the man. The charred body slumped to the ground, the left forefinger falling away from the gun’s trigger.

He expelled the rest of the gas in a blast that ate a large hole in the floor. I killed my Master. He shuddered. What punishment is there for a creature that kills its god?

The world was terribly silent. He took a deep breath, filling his nostrils with the scent of burnt flesh. The Master was dead. He was free. Now what was he going to do?

 

######

 

About the Author

Priest by day, writer at odd times of the day and night, I live with a small green parrot called Xander because the upkeep for a dragon is beyond my current budget. Plus I’m responsible for making good any flame damage to church property. I love ‘Doctor Who’, landscape photography, single malt whisky, and my job, in no particular order. When I’m not looking after a small parish church in the Midlands (England) I like to go on far flung adventures to places like Peru, New Zealand, and the Arctic.

 

Discover titles by Chrys Cymri

 

Dragons Can Only Rust

Dragon Reforged

The Dragon Throne

The Unicorn Throne

The Judas Disciple

 

 

Connect with Me:

 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/chryscymri?fref=ts

My website: http://www.chryscymri.com

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1076161.Chrys_Cymri

[] First Chapter of The Dragon Throne

 

 

Fianna dropped a final portion of straw on the stable floor. Resting a moment on her pitchfork, she wiped a grimy sleeve across her sweaty forehead. The smell of horse dung seemed to cling to her very skin, and she studied the stalls left between her and the main doors. Four more to muck out. Her muscles ached already. Taking a deep breath, she moved on.

‘My lady.’ Ern, the stablemaster, suddenly stepped in front of her.

Fianna straightened. She was tall for her eleven years, but still had to tip back her head to look him in the eye. ‘You’ve told me, in here, I’m Fianna.’

‘Not today, Your Highness.’ He gently but firmly removed the wooden handle from her grasp. ‘I haven’t forgotten the grief of fourteen months’ standing. Today is your mother’s death day.’

‘I didn’t forget,’ she told him bitterly. ‘Please let me work.’

‘You should be with the King—’

‘My father hardly ever knows when I’m gone.’ The words hung in the warm air. Fianna turned her head, regretting the outburst. A princess did not speak that way of the man who was her ruler as well as her sire.

‘Aye, lass, I know.’ Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ern reach out, then drop his hand away before it could touch her. ‘It has been but a year. He might now change.’

And the dragons might come down from the Sacred Mountains and sit one of their own upon the Throne. Fianna winced at the saying. It had been one of her mother’s favourites. ‘You’re right. I’d better go.’

‘I’ll get Jeremy to finish here.’

Fianna nodded. She glanced at the last stall. ‘Tell him Midnight likes to sleep in the right corner. I always put extra straw there for him.’

‘Aye, my lady.’

The shower rooms were empty. Most of the pages were still at their duties, cleaning stalls, repairing tack, training the dogs, the multiple tasks which young nobility were expected to undertake in their earliest service to the King. Fianna stripped off her dusty clothes, dropped them into the communal barrel, and stepped into a hot jet of water. A child of the royal family, she had discovered when she had first come to the stables just under a year ago, was expected to keep to the lighter duties in the castle itself. Carrying messages, greeting visitors, serving the King.

Fianna slicked back her long hair. She liked the stables, the kennels. Animals were often better than people when you wanted to someone to talk to. Midnight was one of her favourites. The gelding always nuzzled her in greeting, and never minded if she left tears in his mane.

Once she’d rinsed, she had no excuse to delay any longer. Fianna reluctantly left the shower, grabbing a towel as she stepped into the next room. Heat rose from the floor, drying her skin as she scrubbed her scalp with the towel. As usual, it took longest to convince a brush to tame her mass of hair. She was convinced that a curry comb would work best, but she couldn’t see Ern agreeing to let her use one for such a purpose. And the tell tale strands of red she’d leave behind would give her away.

Beyond the drying room was the dressing area. Fianna opened the wooden door to her own wardrobe. Fortunately she had one set of court silks still unworn. They’d only been sewn for her a month ago, so they’d still fit. She slipped the trousers over clean undergarments, tucked the shirt into the waist before tightening the belt. Dark green and black. Not the royal colours, but the red badge was in its place above her left breast. A golden bar across the top, cutting across the golden wings of the dragon, marking her as heir to the Dragon Throne.

Fianna laced up her boots, then stared out the window. A wind was playing with remnants of snow, swirling white flakes across the cobblestones. The entrance to Secondus castle was several hundred feet away, and Fianna was tempted to use the underground passage from stables to pages’ quarters. She put the thought aside. It would not do for the King’s daughter to be seen entering the castle from the servants’ halls.

Gritting her teeth, she made her way across the courtyard to the main entrance. The chill stripped the last of the shower’s warmth from her body, and she was grateful for the mulled wine warming over a brazier just inside the thick doors. She ignored the guards’ respectful salutes as she dipped a mug into the spicy liquid.

‘Your Highness.’ Fianna was unable to stop the grimace at Bernard’s low voice. ‘Your sire will meet you in the Queen’s apartments.’

A Queen must be able to hide her emotions from public view. Her father’s advice helped her to swallow her dislike of the Court Recorder, assisted by a helping of mulled wine. ‘All right, I’m going.’

Fianna had occasionally heard guests to the castle complain at its size. Since she’d grown up in it, she couldn’t understand how they got lost down the rambling corridors, or wandered into the wrong wings. Her father knew it even better than she did. He had always won their games of hide and seek. Back in the days when they had played games together.

Her mother’s apartments were on the third level of the north wing. Fianna stopped outside the painted door, automatically checking her clothes, her hair. The seal had only been broken today. The edges of the plaster were rough. She laid a hand on the wood, then pushed it open.

The dust of a year’s neglect stirred at her entrance. Fianna shut the door behind her, then stood in the gloom, remembering other times. Her mother had never been strong, and had spent much of her time in her rooms. But they had been happy, the three of them. In the evenings, Fianna and her father had often come here for games and tales. A game board still stood by one grey window, the players ready. And a book rested on a bed-side table, next to the chair where her father had often sat, holding the hand of her mother as she laughed at his gentle teasing.

But last year the winter had been long and harsh. The winds which blew off the dragons’ Sacred Mountains seemed to find their way in through the thick stones of the castle itself. Despite the efforts of the best mages, her mother sank gradually from life. In one of her last, lucid moments, she had pressed into Fianna’s hand the gold and ruby Summoning Ring. Fianna raised a hand and touched the band where it rested against her neck, held fast on a chain of gold.

‘Take one last look.’ Her father’s soft voice startled Fianna. She glanced at him, but Stannard was studying the room. ‘Fourteen months have passed since I placed my seal on wet plaster outside this door. But the seasons turn on, and the year is soon over. This is the last time we will see this place as she left it. Tomorrow, all must change. Will you want these rooms?’

‘No!’ The violence of her response finally made him look at her. ‘Leave them like this.’

Her father sighed. He ran a hand through his short cropped hair, and for the first time she realised that the once red head was now chased through with grey. ‘The year of mourning is now past, Fia. These apartments must be opened again, and we must both dress in lighter colours. Life must go on.’

Fianna felt her hands bunch into small, useless fists. ‘I don’t want to forget her.’

‘No, you must not.’ Stannard shook his head. ‘Always remember how you felt, fourteen months ago, and again today. Anyone who dies leaves others behind to mourn. Remember that, when you are Queen, and have to order knights into battle. For every one that dies, more are left with dark clothing and empty rooms.’

‘We’re not at war,’ she said stubbornly, kicking at a pattern in the carpet.

‘Not at the moment. But one never knows what may come from the Third Kingdom.’ He walked over to the bed and retrieved the book. ‘You should have this. It always was your favourite.’

Fianna numbly accepted the volume, the cover dry and cracked. The emblem of the royal house was etched into the leather, the dragon’s long neck curved around the title. ‘Will I ever meet a dragon, Father?’

‘You might, at your coronation. The Family appeared at mine.’ He moved through the bedchamber, touching the game board, studying a portrait. His next words were soft, as if meant to be heard only by himself. ‘Yes, you are now my heir.’

‘But I already was,’ Fianna protested. ‘You said so.’

‘Only if no boy were born to your mother.’ He returned to her, touched her briefly on one shoulder. ‘That’s why your aunt wasn’t Queen, though she’s three years older than I am. In any other family, the firstborn inherits. But the Dragon Throne goes to a male, if one exists. Come, Fianna, your mother’s body must be put to the flames. Her spirit has now had time to leave her.’

Fianna allowed him to take her from the room. She kept the book with her as they descended into the catacombs beneath the castle, pressing the tome against her chest like a shield. With a calm, steady voice, her father spoke the final words over her mother’s casket, his torch spluttering in the damp. Then he dropped the flame onto the oak, and they turned away as the fire began at their backs.

 

<><><><><><>

 

The rustle of papers and a heavy sigh made Fianna look up from where she sat by the fire, using the light to practice in her copybook. She absently rubbed an cramped hand as she watched her father move to add another log to the flames. ‘So, Fianna, what did you think of that last judgement today?’

‘Why didn’t you tell that man to shut up?’ she asked. ‘He kept going on and on about how it wasn’t fair that he didn’t have more land, and that you wouldn’t do anything about it.’

‘What would you have done?’

‘Told him that I decided who had land, so he should just go away and be happy with what he’s got.’

His light eyes regarded her for a moment. ‘And what gives you the right to say that?’

‘Because I’d be Queen.’ He smiled slightly, and Fianna flushed, uncertain. ‘Doesn’t that make me right?’

‘A ruler is no better or worse than those he rules.’ Stannard leaned back in his favourite armchair. He lit his pipe for his nightly smoke, a habit Fianna’s mother had tried and failed to break. Fianna had always secretly liked the rich smell of the tobacco mixture her father used. ‘I am King because I sired by the last king, and you will be Queen merely because you were born to my wife. Ability has nothing to do with it. You didn’t become my heir by proving yourself the best suited to rule. Only by pure chance were you born to the royal house rather than to a village farmer. Keep that in mind. I’ve found it helps me maintain a more humble perspective.’

Fianna frowned, trying to understand what he meant. ‘But why did you let him keep talking?’

‘Sometimes, a king has to judge. Other times, he has to remain silent.’ Stannard smiled around his pipe. ‘The man simply wanted me to listen.’

‘And if you didn’t want to?’

‘What I wanted wasn’t important. There are many times when a ruler’s own personal wishes have to come last.’

Fianna frowned to herself. I, she decided, would’ve told him to shut up.

Her father shifted in his seat, retrieving a document. ‘I’ve been reviewing names for a new Castellan.’

Fianna tensed. ‘That was mother’s job.’

‘Yes,’ he agreed gently. ‘And for the past year, we’ve all been doing our best to keep the household running smoothly. Bernard keeps reminding me of all the extra work he’s done.’ He shared a grimace with her. ‘You’re not yet old enough to take the duties on yourself. My old friend, the Duke of Cassern, has a young daughter raised to the challenges of managing a castle. He’s offered to bring her here. Her name is Marissa. Do you think that would be a good idea?’

‘I guess so.’ Fianna stared at the fire. For some reason she suddenly felt cold.

 

<><><><><><>

 

Early flowers were beginning to respond to the first warmer days of spring. Fianna waited at the castle entrance, at the side of her father, as servants spread blooms across the courtyard. Bernard had told her how important the Duke was, as head of the second house of the Fourth Kingdom, and he’d instructed her to wear royal colours to honour the man. Fianna felt her skin twitch under the new clothes, red tunic a shade lighter than her trousers, gold threads woven through the material. She fully expected the Duke’s family to gawp over her, and tediously list the eligible boys of rank which might be interested in a marriage pact, though her father had always calmly insisted that she would be free to pick her own consort. The only thing which lightened the day was the newly forged coronet holding back her long hair. This was the first time she’d ever worn the gold circlet of her status, and its slight weight made her straighten with pride.

Two knights rode through the gates first, blue and orange silks flapping against mail. They formally presented their swords hilt first to the King’s guards, then took up positions on either side of the entrance. The Duke came in next. Fianna only glanced at the dark bearded man, finding his stallion far more interesting. The dappled grey moved well, eagerly arching his neck as he scented the stables nearby. Few fighters rode whole males, most preferring the more controllable geldings and mares.

The stallion was reined in a few yards from the entrance to the castle proper. Stannard moved forward, taking hold of the horse’s reins before one of the waiting grooms could dash in. ‘Latham,’ he said warmly. ‘Welcome, old friend.’

The Duke grunted. He slid to the ground, and the two men clasped forearms, the gesture of equals. Stannard glanced back, and Fianna obediently came to his side. ‘My daughter, the Princess Fianna.’

Latham bowed. ‘Your Highness. You’ve grown since I last saw you.’

Fianna wondered why adults so often told her that. Then she repeated the words the Court Recorder had drilled into her. ‘Duke Latham, you honour our house with your presence. We are the stronger for your friendship.’

White teeth flashed under the thick moustache. ‘Well spoken, my lady.’ He turned his head. ‘May I present my own daughter, the Lady Marissa.’

His daughter had dismounted a short distance away while they spoke. Now she walked up to them, her flowing dress a bright green which went well with her brown hair. She must’ve changed in the city, Fianna decided, noting the lack of mud on the silk. Stopping beside the Duke, she dropped into a quick curtsy. ‘Your Majesty, Your Highness, I’m proud to place myself at your service. I hope that I will please you in my efforts.’

‘You have come highly recommended,’ Stannard said warmly. Fianna glanced up at him, startled by a new note in his voice. ‘I’m sure you will do well. Otherwise, I’m certain we could use more assistance in the kennels.’

‘Come now, sir,’ Marissa said, smiling, ‘surely I have a sweeter nature than that?’

Stannard stared at her for a moment. Then he laughed, the first genuine laugh Fianna had heard from him since her mother’s death. She shifted restlessly, not understanding the joke. ‘She’s certainly worthy of you, Latham. Come, let’s go inside, and discuss your duties over a glass of wine.’

 

<><><><><><>

 

The change began slowly. Happy in her duties in stables and kennels, and new experiences gained in the practice yard with dagger and spear, Fianna didn’t take much notice when Marissa began to use the King’s first name. She was nursing bruises and pride from a fall from a warhorse the first time the Castellan called her father by his family nickname, Stan, and plans for recapturing the respect of her fellow pages seemed far more important.

Summer came, and Marissa spread her interests. She ventured into the kennels one day, the wide skirts she favoured out of place in the warm, doggy environment. Fianna glanced up, annoyed. The kennelmistress was allowing her to assist with a whelping bitch, and the first puppy was yet to emerge. It was the kennelmistress who spoke to the woman. ‘Castellan, how may we serve you?’

Marissa twitched her skirts back from the whelping box. ‘I came to speak to Fia.’

‘Fianna,’ she told Marissa. Only her father used that nickname. ‘I’m busy right now.’

‘I’m sure Ellenor can manage on her own.’

Fianna saw the quiet plea in the kennelmistress’s eyes. As Castellan, Marissa outranked Ellenor. Rising reluctantly to her feet, Fianna asked her, ‘Next time?’

‘Next time,’ Ellenor promised, then leaned forward again.

The sounds of a working castle surrounded them as Fianna followed Marissa across the courtyard. Pages were practising in the training yard, wood thwacking against wood as training swords crossed. In the horse ring beyond them, a stallion was being put through his paces, circling his handler at the end of a lounge line. From beyond the walls came the sound of arrow tips driving into straw, and laughs as the archers sought to best one another.

Then they were inside the castle. Servants moved quietly through the hall, cleaning tiles, restocking firewood. The rich smell of freshly waxed wood tickled Fianna’s nose, and she put a finger against her nostrils to prevent a sneeze.

Marissa led her into the Castellan’s office, a small room on the ground level of the castle. Changes had been made since Fianna’s mother had occupied it. Gone were the family portraits and paintings of the hawks bred by her own family. Maps of the Fourth Kingdom hung in their stead, and an etching of the Sacred Mountains.

Fianna dropped into a chair opposite the large desk. No one could sit before a member of the royal family did, so her father had told her it was only polite for a sovereign to take a seat as soon as possible. Marissa, hampered by her skirts, lowered herself more gently, patting the folds into place around her. ‘You don’t mind me calling you by your first name, do you?’

‘No.’ Fianna shrugged. ‘The other pages do.’

She was rewarded by a quick frown at such a familiarity. ‘I wanted to ask you about your duties. We see so little of you in the castle.’

‘I attend my father whenever I should,’ Fianna said slowly, wondering what the woman was getting at. ‘And I see him every evening for my lessons.’

‘Wouldn’t it be better for you to be assigned to castle duties?’ Marissa gave her what was obviously meant to be a winning smile. ‘I mean, it can’t be nice to clean out stables and walk dogs—’

‘Lady Castellan, I asked to be assigned to those tasks.’ Fianna stood. ‘If that’s all you wanted me for, I’ll go now.’

‘You need to learn other skills,’ Marissa continued, rising as well. ‘And it would be good to see you in something other than trousers.’

Fianna felt anger rise in her, fought against it. Her father had taken her to task before about her temper. ‘You, my lady, are not my mother. Only my sire outranks me, and unless he says otherwise, I will continue in my chosen duties.’

She returned to the kennels in time to see the last three pups born. The seventh was weak and small, and the kennelmistress was not surprised when it died in Fianna’s hands. ‘Oft occurs to the runt,’ she said dismissively, more interested in examining the healthy pups.

Fianna stared down at the limp body which barely covered her palm. A moment ago, it had been breathing, albeit weakly. Now its spirit was gone, after only seconds of life. ‘What do we do with it?’

‘Place it with the usual refuse.’

Something inside Fianna protested at such a dismissal. ‘I take my leave of you,’ she told the woman formally.

Inside her locker she found an old shirt, red and gold. Wrapping the body carefully in the folds, she approached the stable hand on duty for the use of a horse. He saddled up a mare for her, and agreed to give word to any searching for her that she had ridden into the city. She paid little attention when one of the guards on duty mounted and followed after her. Such precautions had followed her throughout her life.

The guard pulled closer to her as they left the castle, and Fianna smiled at his caution. She had visited both of the other two cities of the Fourth Kingdom, and found them ordinary and boring. In Secondus, magic literally ran down the twisting streets. Parts of the city were known to disappear for days at a time, only to emerge at another sector within the walls. Maps were meaningless, and many a traveller had found a journey which should only have taken minutes expanding to fill a day as he followed the ever changing paths. No one knew the reason for the unpredictability. Some thought it came from the siting of the Mages’ College at the foot of the castle, others that it was an ancient protection against invasion. The only ones immune to the magic were those of the royal household, for whom the streets always remained fixed.

Fianna thought she felt an awareness when she entered the city proper, just below imagination but not quite concrete enough to call reality. As if Secondus recognised her as one its special ones. As she usually did, she issued a mental welcome, pleased at her special treatment.

Some of the citizens she rode past recognised her. But as she wasn’t wearing the colours of her house, they merely nodded acknowledgements and let her continue on her private business. Fianna rode without pausing, though smells from the food stalls by one market made her stomach rumble. At the city gates the guards saluted her as she passed outside.

Warm days had hardened the springtime mud to hard earth outside the walls. Fianna carefully directed the mare around the wide gashes of cart wheels, then sent her into a canter up into the nearby hills. She buried the pup under one of the large trees. The first to die in my service? she thought, lowering the wrapped body into the small hole. She glanced up at the guard, but he was politely staring off in the distance. Nobody had ever died in her presence before, but she had the uncomfortable feeling that this puppy was not to be the only one during her reign.

She stayed outside the city longer than she had planned. Despite the lateness of the evening, she still stopped her horse beside the Sign. ‘What do you think?’ she asked the guard beside her. ‘Will it speak today?’

Two cylinders of rolled metal, thicker and sturdier than anything the kingdom’s smiths could forge, rose from a slight hill. Several horses could ride between them at once. The pillars supported the massive Sign, holding it a hundred feet above their heads. Welcome to Secondus was spelled out in golden letters, bright against the red background.

‘I’ve never heard it make a sound, Your Highness,’ the guard said.

‘Neither have I.’ Fianna looked up with longing. ‘My sire says it stopped speaking during his father’s reign. And, before that, it even used to sing.’

‘Sing?’

‘A tune in praise of Secondus.’ Fianna kneed her horse between the supports, but the only sound was a breeze wisping weeds against the metal. Once again she wondered who had built the Sign, and why.

They continued back to the city. As she rode back up to the castle, the white towers tinged red by the setting sun, Fianna recalled that she was due to meet her father early this evening. Gritting her teeth against the urge to gallop her horse over the hard cobblestones, she instead counted the twists in the road up to the castle gates.

Jeremy was lounging in the stables when she rode in, and he willingly took the mare from her, promising to give her a good rub down. Fianna hurried into the shower rooms, washing quickly before donning court clothes. Then she hesitated. Her father’s offices were across the courtyard, through the entry hall, down one wing, and along several corridors. A fifteen minute walk. Or, if she used the servants’ passages, which wove behind and between the royal rooms, she could run and be there in five minutes.

He’ll forgive me this once, she decided, and set off along the underground corridor to the castle. The hallways had recently been redecorated, and the smell of fresh paint still hung in the air. Some of the doors had not yet had their signs returned, but Fianna knew her way well enough without the notices. She halted outside the door to her father’s study, taking several deep breaths and adjusting her tunic. She smiled at the deep rumble of his voice. Then a higher tone made her lean closer, the door tipping open at her slight weight.

‘But she should be in the castle.’ The voice was Marissa’s, indignant. ‘Have you seen her out there, Stan? Covered in horse muck like any common page.’

‘There are no common pages in Secondus.’ Her father sounded amused, and Fianna felt herself exhale in relief. ‘All of them come from noble families. It can only stand to her good if Fia forms friendships with them now. One day, they will be her knights and subjects, with more reason than duty alone to protect her and her kingdom.’

‘If she does become Queen.’

Fianna tensed at the remark. ‘I was old when she was born, Maris. I think it unlikely that I will sire another child now.’

‘But if we do have a boy?’

‘If you ever became pregnant, and gave me a son, by the laws of the Fourth Kingdom he would inherit the Dragon Throne.’

Fianna drew back, the door shutting softly. For a long moment, she was numb with shock. Suddenly the looks her father had exchanged with Marissa over the dinner table made sense. The long rides away from the castle, just the two of them, Marissa’s nightly appearances in the King’s apartments when Fianna was taking her leave… Her father was going to marry this woman. Just into the second year after her mother’s death, and he intended to betray her memory by taking a new wife.

Maybe it won’t happen, she thought hopefully. Maybe he’ll see it’s wrong. I won’t say anything yet. She hurried through another exit, entering the main castle corridors. Now she would be late, but her anger at her father’s intended betrayal should be taken as understandable dismay for being tardy.

 

<><><><><><>

 

Rumours began to flow and eddy through the castle. Marissa was granted a new set of rooms in the ground floor, near one of the enclosed gardens. New dresses were ordered for her, incorporating the royal colours. Several maids were elevated to ladies-in-waiting. Fianna scowled at the whispers between her fellow pages, and worked harder than ever on her new lessons on horse ailments and their cures. She also had her first taste of command, drilling a squadron of mounted pages on placid mounts for mock battles in the summer tournaments.

‘You have a sure touch with both people and horses,’ the training master told her one evening, holding the reins of her mare as she ran her hands down a swollen leg. But as she started to smile at the praise, he continued, ‘You’ll always have a place as a knight and a commander, even if…’

He trailed off. Fianna rose slowly. ‘Even if what?’

Jacard looked away. ‘I speak out of turn, my lady. The announcement is only hours old.’

‘Announcement?’ she demanded. ‘What announcement?’

A flush of red crept up the man’s face. ‘Your pardon, my lady. I had thought you knew. The King has announced that he will take the Lady Marissa as wife.’

‘The tendon is bowed,’ Fianna heard herself say. ‘Could you ask the healer to see to her, Jacard? I should attend the engagement dinner.’

Without waiting to hear his mumbled response, she moved to the showers. The exhilaration of the day’s successful exercises had dropped away, leaving behind it a growing anger. So, she was the last to know. Her father had declared his intentions, and not thought of telling his only child.

Only child for now. She closed her eyes, letting hot water run down her hair, pound against the stiff muscles of her back. I know he’s old, but Marissa isn’t. And she’ll be Queen, and she’ll be able to tell me what to do. If she wants me in the castle, away from the stables, she’ll have the right. She could even make me one of her ladies-in-waiting.

The thought made Fianna use one of Ern’s favourite oaths. The words sounded grandly horrible, echoing against the tiled shower room. Fianna scrubbed herself furiously. She was never going to serve Marissa. No matter what, she was going to be far from here before that woman tried to give her any orders.

In the dressing room she automatically reached for silks. Then, her lips thinning, she instead lifted out woollen trousers and a cotton jerkin, both in the dull colours of a stable hand. In the armoury she chose a dagger and a sword short enough for her reach. Using the servants’ passageways to climb to her rooms, she packed a few items into a pair of saddlebags. She saddled her favourite mare, then leaned against her for a moment, fighting for control of her emotions. Then she left her mount in the stall, the mare chewing impatiently at her bit.

The engagement dinner had already begun, the nobles present at the castle seated around the table to toast the couple. The conversation stilled as Fianna appeared at the door, her hand flexing above the hilt of her sword.

‘Fianna.’ Her father rose from his seat, his calm, commanding voice a rebuke. ‘You will apologise to Lady Marissa for this entrance.’

So, he wasn’t even going to try to explain. Already he was taking the side of his new consort. ‘Your lady she might be,’ Fianna said angrily, ‘and your Queen, but she will never be either to me.’

Marissa started from her seat, speaking quietly to Stannard. He brushed her words away. ‘That sounds near to a challenge, my daughter.’

For a moment neither of them moved. Then Fianna looked at his wide shoulders, his height, and the equally tall man waiting behind his chair as King’s Champion. ‘I do not challenge you, Father,’ she said finally, lowering her hand. Turning on her heel, she strode from the room and the castle.

A guard fell in behind her as she rode the mare through the gates. Fianna set her mount into a trot, soon losing the guard as the streets twisted and changed behind her. Pausing only to buy some food from a street stall, she hurried from the city.

The night was clear, the roads lit blue and green by the double moons, and Fianna enjoyed the feel of the fresh air on her face as she chewed a meat roll. She knew exactly where to go. Her aunt lived in a small town near the kingdom’s borders. Several years ago, Fianna had visited her, and she remembered the landmarks back to Lundern. The Lady Sallah would take her in while Fianna decided about her future. Her heart light, Fianna pressed the mare into a rocking canter, and let the miles slide past under her mount’s hooves.

 

<><><><><><>

 

A storm blew over a few days later. Fianna cursed the lack of foresight which had made her neglect to pack a rain cloak. Her food supplies dwindled, and her stomach grumbled with hunger. She kept the mare plodding on under the grey skies. Finally, five days later, she rode into Lundern, the streets all but deserted in the late evening.

Her aunt’s mansion was set apart from the rest of the town. Fianna passed the grand entry porch to go on to the stables, a lifetime’s training reminding her that the needs of her horse came first. A stable hand rose from a hay bale as she opened the doors. ‘And who be ye?’

‘Fianna, Princess of the Fourth Kingdom and niece to the Lady Sallah.’ Fianna dismounted and, when the man showed no signs of assisting her, led the mare herself into a stall. ‘Would you send word that I have arrived?’

‘Be she expecting ye?’

‘No.’ Fianna placed water and hay into the stall, and removed bridle and saddle as the mare began to feed. At least the small stables were well organised. She easily found cloths and blankets. Rubbing the mare dry, she draped a blanket over the horse, then grabbed the saddlebags.

‘Go to the house,’ the stable hand told her when he returned. ‘Ye will wait the lady’s pleasure in her hall.’

Fianna nodded curtly. Already wet through, she walked unhurriedly to the house, ignoring the rain slicking her hair. A servant opened the door for her, then left her standing in the hallway. Fianna watched water drip from her clothes onto the black tiles, wondering if the servant had got lost looking for her aunt.

The woman finally returned. ‘The Lady Sallah will see you now,’ she said formally. Fianna followed her to a large room, finding her aunt seated behind a massive table. The servant closed the door behind her as she left.

‘Aunt Sallah,’ Fianna said, starting to smile.

The old woman rose and came around the table. The flickering oil lamps brushed over the tightly bound grey hair, and brought no warmth to the blue eyes. Strong hands rested on a thick cane as she studied Fianna. The sternness in her gaze made Fianna swallow. ‘What would you have of me, girl?’

‘Shelter and sustenance, my lady.’ Fianna edged towards the warm fire, wondering why her aunt wasn’t offering her a blanket or a hot drink. ‘I have ridden a long way.’

Sallah rested back against the table. ‘And why is the heir to the Dragon Throne not in Secondus Castle?’

‘He who sits on the Throne has taken another woman to wife.’ Fianna caught a shift in the harsh lines of her aunt’s face, and knew that her description of her father had found her some approval. ‘I couldn’t stay.’

Sallah nodded. ‘You will have to work for your keep.’

After her initial start of surprise, Fianna raised her head proudly. ‘I’m skilled in stable and kennel.’

Her aunt smiled slightly. ‘I know of your skills with horse and hound. But I will teach you much more. You must be able to take the Throne when the King dies. Has he taught you aught about ruling?’

‘I’ve stood beside him while he’s made judgements,’ Fianna answered. ‘He’s taught me that a ruler must use both justice and mercy, and ask the opinion of others before deciding anything important.’

Sallah laughed. Fianna blushed at the mocking note. ‘Then I will teach you what he did not. A ruler answers to no one. All decisions are ultimately hers, despite whatever counsel she weakens herself by taking. Therefore, it is best that she depends on no one, needs no one. Only then is she strong.’

‘But I might not be Queen.’ Fianna found her face heating at the injustice. ‘Marissa might have a son.’

‘Only if Stannard can still sire a child.’ Sallah leaned forward. ‘That is the reason why he has decided to remarry, after all.’

Fianna blinked. ‘What is?’

‘Why, to have a son, of course.’

Yes, of course, Fianna thought. Sallah was right. Maybe this was why her father hadn’t liked to have his sister in the castle. She knew too much about him. ‘He’s betrayed both us,’ she said angrily. ‘My mother, and me. Weren’t we good enough?’

‘You’ll still rule.’ Firelight added a red tinge to her aunt’s eyes. ‘With me to assist you, we’ll ensure that you will one day be Queen. But you must agree to obey me, while you live under my roof and eat at my table. Do you understand?’

Fianna nodded. ‘I understand.’ Yes, she reflected bitterly, I understand a lot of things now.

‘Then take my offer of hospitality.’ Sallah smiled grimly. ‘Yes, you will need to learn to take whatever you can, Fianna. That is the way to power. Take what you need to get what you want. Including a Throne.’

A servant led her to a small room on the third level of the house. Fianna gratefully warmed herself in a bath, then changed into dry clothes. She stared out the window for awhile, physically tired, but her mind not letting her rest. In that direction lay Secondus, and beyond it, the Sacred Mountains of the dragons. For a moment, she wished that a dragon would come to carry her away, even as one did a King several centuries ago. That would make her father sorry, wouldn’t it? He’d leave Marissa and ride into the mountains, pleading for her safe return. And the Family would demand that he put her onto the Throne…

Fianna turned away and crawled into her bed. Strangely enough, although she couldn’t remember the exact details of her dreams the next morning, they were not about dragons, but unicorns.

First Chapter Dragons Can Only Rust

 

The sun returned hazily to earth, drawing in its wake a shroud of clouds red and purple, tinged orange at the trailing edges. Gonard stepped closer to her, shifting his large body across the ledge until their wing-leathers rasped together. The last rays of sunlight glittered a rainbow across her eyes, and picked tiny points of light from her red scales. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the far away scent of pine trees. This was the best part of the day, when he could stand beside her as darkness came.

But he did not feel his usual peace tonight. Some thing was not right… He twisted his head to meet her eyes, as the air was suddenly filled with the dusty scent of warning. ‘Vomer?’

She turned her wedge-shaped head away from him. ‘Gonard, the Master is going to unmake me tomorrow.’

Breath hissed between his teeth. His claws dug deep into the rock, his body stilling in horror. Only his tail moved, slamming painfully against the cliff before falling limply to his side. Vomer moved away from him, to stand alone on the ledge.

Without thinking, Gonard whirled, and dove into the Master’s cave. The slope down to the laboratory was almost vertical; his claws left deep marks in the rock as he ran-slid down its length. He swept his wings out and back, opening them to break his speed. The long folds brushed against the dark walls as he landed heavily on the polished floor.

‘Yes, Gonard?’

The Master’s sharp voice brought him to his feet. The man was bent over the long work table, fingers deep in some delicate object. A hand moved suddenly, first to flick an errant strand of brown-grey hair behind an ear, then to lift an instrument from the table. The bright thing growled, and Gonard averted his eyes from its bright beam.

‘There must be a reason for your sudden entrance.’ The Master did not look up as he spoke. ‘Tell me, or I shall dismiss you.’

‘Vomer—is she to be unmade tomorrow?’

The Master placed his glowing rod to one side. He finally raised his head. Gonard retreated a step. The bright, sourceless light which filled the cavern sparkled on the greying hairs. The black eyes bore into his. Gonard turned his own head aside, not daring to face such power. ‘Yes.’

The question came out before he could stop it. ‘Why?’ Then Gonard cringed.

But the Master’s answer was calm, unangered. ‘I need a dragon for a forthcoming Hunt. The Lord Citizen has demanded a green dragon, and she holds materials which I require. You know as well as I that I rarely maintain a spare creature for more than a few months. I’ve forgotten why I have allowed her to exist for so long.’ The deep voice dropped. ‘I have also forgotten why I’ve kept you.’

Gonard lowered his head, puzzled by the Master’s thoughtful tone. He shuffled his feet uncomfortably. One of his claws screeched against the floor, and he stopped. ‘Sorry,’ he rumbled.

‘You have never protested before when I’ve unmade a creature. Why now?’

Don’t you understand? Gonard wanted to ask. Don’t you see? She hasn’t Awakened yet. All her thoughts are slow thoughts, metal thoughts, bubbling up and bursting and leaving nothing behind. Nothing more. Gonard closed his eyes, words piling up in his throat. He had only recently Awakened himself. ‘We have been together for over two years—’

‘Which can mean nothing to you. You are no more than a dragon, created by my own hands and the tools at my command.’ The Master swept an arm at the many things of power which filled the cavern. ‘It is impossible for you to feel an attachment to any thing. Dragons can’t feel. Dragons can only rust.’

Gonard dipped his snout in agreement. The Master knew. He understood things better than a mere dragon. The man went back to his work, dismissing him. Gonard turned carefully, folding his wings onto his back as he limped to the comforting darkness of his burrow.

Vomer came to his side some time later. She lowered herself to her belly, tucking hindlegs underneath. Their eyes reflected the light stretching down the passageway from the laboratory, casting four bright ovals onto the rough walls. Gonard draped his good wing over her, ignoring the small pricks of pain as she shifted and her body spines dug into the leathery flaps.

Vomer closed her eyes. He felt her breathing still as she discontinued consciousness for the night. For a moment he envied her. Since his Awakening, sleep had become a dangerous realm, from which he might not safely emerge. Sleep gave the metal bubble thoughts a change to re-establish themselves, take over again. Perhaps it would have been better if he had never Awakened…

A shiver started at his nose and trembled its way down to his tail, slapping the flattened end against the ground. No. He could lose himself that way as well.

He was never far from losing himself. He must always guard his thoughts. To be unAwakened was to be nothing more than a complex body, organs thumping and bones clicking. To be Awake was so much more… Would Vomer ever have a chance to realise that?

How could the Hunt claim Vomer? He gazed at her, his eyes following the long curve of her neck to her head, the long muzzle pillowed on her outstretched forelegs. A strange pain settled in his chest. He shifted his position on the floor, but the pain remained, puzzling in its lack of physical cause.

He finally dug his claws into the rough rock and pulled himself to his feet. The passageway was well lit with laboratory light. Head bent, he watched his feet carry him forward, their dark-blue nearly matching the dark rock, the crippled form of his left forefoot a suitable companion to the claw-scarred ground.

The sourceless light of the laboratory seemed brighter than ever, and he blinked as he left the passageway. Instruments driven by the Master’s power flashed and gleamed from their wall panels. A dull, steady throb filled the air. The sound made Gonard’s legs twitch uncomfortably, and he had to fight the sudden urge to curl into a tight ball around his head. The Master was creating the Hunt dragon’s brain.

The Master snapped one sharp, impatient word, and the power dissipated. He tore off his black eye-covering. Gonard cowered at his glare. ‘What are you doing here?’

Gonard stood still for a moment in the room of his creation. How many years had he lived? Nearly ten. Ten years—and Vomer had only had two. ‘Master, let me be the Hunt dragon.’

‘You?’ The man walked around the table, coming towards him in slow, powerful steps. He is not just a man, he is the Master, Gonard reminded himself, backing away. The Master’s head might only reach the height of a dragon’s first knee joint, but the power surrounding him made the man seem too large for even the cavern to contain comfortably. ‘Look at yourself. The Lord Citizen demands a perfect dragon. You were twisted from your making, and deformed you will always be. What would he say if I offered you to him? He would spit in my face. That is what he would do.’

The pain was hardening in Gonard’s chest. ‘Then use me to build the Hunt dragon.’

‘Gonard. Enough of this.’ The mocking tone cut through his protest. Gonard lowered his head until his snout touched the warm floor. ‘Listen to me, dragon. You are merely a creation, something brought to existence by my own hands. I can name every item I used to give you movement.’ Gonard glanced up. The Master’s eyes flashed blue-black, and Gonard’s nostrils flared as the heavy smell of angered power dusted them with fire. ‘Vomer is equally nothing more than one of my creations. You are both nothing more than extensions of myself. I can make or unmake you at will. Without me, you are nothing. On your own, all you can do is rust.’

‘Dragons can only rust,’ Gonard repeated.

‘And do you comprehend what that means?’

‘Without a Master, I will return to the nothing from which I came.’

‘Precisely.’ The Master’s stern expression suddenly softened. He leaned back against the table. ‘But you can be useful to your Master. You usually show great interest in my creating, and I have valued your contributions to my designs. Does this Hunt dragon not interest you?’

Gonard paused. The Master was right. In fact, it had been Gonard who had convinced him that a gryphon’s wings should spring from the shoulders, not from the back. He enjoyed the exploration of ancient, decaying texts for illustrations of long extinct beasts, suggesting that in the preliminary sketches the Master add a tooth here, remove a claw there. But the Hunt dragon—no, he could not enjoy that. ‘You don’t need much preparation, Master. You don’t have to do much more than alter the dragon drawings you already have. And I’m not allowed to help you design the interior of a creation.’

‘I will not force you,’ the Master said stiffly. ‘You are dismissed.’

Gonard turned, climbed slowly up the slope to the cool night outside. He stretched out long, golden wings. The right wing had slim, straight lines and a proud expanse of leathery skin. The left sagged, skin wrenched apart, twisted. The night breeze pulled at both. One wing billowed, the other swung loosely, like a collection of rags. He wondered what they were for. Sometimes, as now, when the wind blew against them, he almost knew.

His ears twitched at the scrape of claws upon rock. Vomer pulled herself onto the ledge. Gonard shifted to make room for her, surprised at her presence. She should not have returned to consciousness until the morning. ‘I tried to change the Master’s mind,’ he said, ‘but he wouldn’t listen to me.’

‘It is unimportant,’ she replied calmly. ‘I belong to the Master. He is entitled to do with me as he wishes. Dragons can only rust.’

‘I once believed as you do,’ Gonard said slowly. ‘That was before I Awakened.’

She cocked her head, moonlight trickling down her neck scales. ‘I do not understand this “Awakening”.’

How could he explain? How could he make her understand? Gonard looked up at the dark sky, saw a cloud silvered by the half moon. ‘What is that, by the moon?’

‘A cloud.’

‘No. Look at it closely. What else is it?’

She studied it a moment longer. ‘A visible mass of condensed watery vapour floating high above the ground.’

‘No, look again,’ he urged. ‘What does it remind you of? Think hard.’

‘It reminds me of the cycle of evaporation and precipitation.’

Gonard sighed, defeated. ‘To me, it looks like one of the dogs the Master created for the Lord Citizen. The cloud looks like a dog trying to swallow the moon.’

‘A cloud is a mass of condensed watery vapour,’ Vomer repeated. ‘How can this be regarded as a four-legged carnivorous animal of family akin fox and wolf?’

‘To be Awakened is to be more than a mass of muscle and organs.’ Gonard glanced at the cloud, now more like a cat, claws outstretched. ‘I only Awakened slowly. A few more moments each day when I was more than the inward processes of existence, when I could think on my own. I had hoped that you would also Awaken.’

They stood in silence for a long moment. Then Vomer said, ‘You once explained to me that all things eventually leave their existence. Even beings like our Master. How do they approach this?’

‘They believe that death is only a step to a new beginning.’ The teachings of the books he had been permitted to read came back to him. ‘They have souls—something beyond the body and mind which holds all that is themselves. And it continues to exist even after they die, taking all that is themselves to somewhere else.’

‘So they never cease to exist?’

‘So they believe.’

‘Then, believe the same for me.’

He studied her, the pain in his chest tightening. She had never spoken thoughts like these before. Was she close to Awakening? If only she had more time, if only he could convince the Master… But the Hunt. The Hunt most go on. The vision of a dragon galloping across a green valley, chased by men and women on horseback, filled his mind. It was the Hunt which allowed the Master to continue creating. The Hunt must go on.

He hung his head over the ledge, gazing down to where the ground and cliff embraced, hundreds of meters below. ‘Dragons have no souls,’ he said softly.

‘Why not?’

Dragons can only rust. She knew that as well as he did. ‘Souls come from the Ultimate,’ he retorted, ‘Who is as far beyond the Master as the Master is beyond us. It is not within the Master’s power to give us souls.’

Vomer’s sigh made him raise his head. She sat down, her long tail curling around her thin, graceful body. Gonard thought to himself suddenly, She is very beautiful. And he swallowed as she said, ‘I know very little about these things. I do know that your breathing is out of rhythm and you are holding yourself away from me as if I were already gone. I have no concern for myself—I only wish to serve my Master. But you—’ she faltered. ‘I believe it would ease you if you believed that I do have a soul. Believe that I will continue to exist after the Master has used me.’

Gonard nodded, unable to speak.

‘Now, please stand beside me. The night is cold.’

He obeyed, covering her with his right wing. They stood together until dawn, when the Master’s voice called Vomer away.

 

<><><><><><>

 

The morning turned to afternoon, the sun carrying its light over to Gonard’s ledge. He listened to the throb of the Master’s instruments, knowing that they were following the Master’s commands and building the Hunt dragon.

Despite his ache of loss, Gonard found himself wondering exactly how the Master would take Vomer apart. He had seen pictures of human anatomy. Dragons could not be very different. How would the Master remove the blood, lift out the heart, separate lungs from ribs? Or would he go further in his unmaking, reducing Vomer to the basic stuff of flesh from which she had been made? He wanted to watch—the more of Vomer the Hunt dragon held, the more the hope that some part of her lived on. But he was forbidden to witness the actual building of a creature.

The throb disappeared, replaced by low rumbles. Now he would be allowed to watch. He opened his eyes, saw the Master working over the Hunt dragon. The green body gleamed. He wondered if anything of Vomer remained.

But, he reminded himself, the mist. As the Master had cut into Vomer’s body, a thin mist had arisen, dimming red scales and darker skin. Then the harsh sound and bitter smell of the Master’s power had forced him to shut his eyes. His head trembled against his forefeet, draped uncomfortably over the edge of the slope. Could that mist have been Vomer’s soul?

The Master stepped back from the table. He spoke to his panel of instruments. The table began to glow, a high-pitched hum surrounding the dragon body. Gonard trembled again. As often as he had heard the sound, whether hiding himself in his cave or gazing down from the ledge, he always trembled. The hum became a whistle, high-pitched notes forming the unique birth-song of a new creature. A similar song had brought him into existence. This was the moment of the Master’s ultimate power.

The mass on the table twitched. The body firmed, muscles knitting together underneath the thin skin. Then the scales grew into place, hardening under the lights, small ones on head and toes, larger on the body. Two long, black wings fanned open and draped onto the floor.

The Master strode to the head of the Hunt dragon. Gonard saw the large eyes open, blink in the strong light. ‘Dragons can only rust,’ the Master said into one of the fur-rimmed ears. ‘That is the only thing you can do without me.’ Then he backed away, and commanded, ‘Stand.’

The Hunt dragon’s head jerked from the table. The rest of the body followed stiffly, shuddering as the dragon struggled to establish control over the existence which had been suddenly granted to her.

‘Move your left forefoot and wing forward,’ the Master snapped.

The dragon obeyed. Then her head snapped back. With a screech that shook the cavern, she toppled from the table, her foot and wing twisting and writhing. Gonard found himself straightening with the same scream, as his own foot and wing remembered the pain which had deformed them at his own birth. Sometimes, even the Master’s power went wrong.

‘Gonard, come!’

The Master’s command broke through his memory. Gonard skidded down the slope, halting beside the fallen Hunt dragon. He glanced at the green body. When the power went wrong, the kindest action to take was to remove existence from the creature. This time, the Master had been kind.

‘What a nuisance,’ the Master muttered. ‘Now I must attempt to salvage enough for one healthy dragon from between two. Get on the table.’

Gonard dropped his snout to the floor, then surprised himself by hesitating to obey. One eye watched the man go to his gleaming walls. The other drifted back to the Hunt dragon. The neck had twisted in the fall, breaking the skin open. A thin, white-blue mist swirled over the slit. Something glittered underneath.

Glitter? What could glitter in a dragon’s body? Gonard drew back his lips, used his long canines to pull the skin away from the neck. A silvery structure was exposed, filaments of metal arranged to slide easily past each other. One of the head plates had slipped aside, revealing a mass of intricately laced fibres. The brain of a dragon.

Now he understood. Now he knew why he could rust. Blood and meat and skin—no. Now he saw what a dragon really was, a thing of metal and rubber and plastic, strung together and given the semblance of existence. So convincing that even the machine could begin to believe that it was alive. The mist was followed by a clear liquid, beading on the exposed metal, protecting it from rust.

Vomer was gone. A dragon could not have a soul. And soon he would be gone as well.

The Master turned around. ‘I commanded you to get on the table.’

Gonard merely stared at him. A pain was thickening in his chest, behind which something shifted, expanded. ‘Why?’

‘There is no why,’ the Master growled. ‘I command. You obey.’

‘No. Why—’ Gonard shuddered. ‘Why did you let us think that we were alive? Why did you create such a lie of existence? Why?’

The Master’s eyes narrowed. ‘Obey me. Get on that table.’

The ache was building in his chest, his muscles trembling as if something were attempting to move, to grow. Images swirled in his mind. A dog-shaped cloud. Vomer silhouetted against the sunset. A drawing of a human heart. The metal connections of the Hunt dragon’s neck crackled under foot as he moved forward. In a corner of the cavern, he could see the red mass which had once been Vomer, now torn apart and discarded. ‘She is not alive, and she never was alive.’ He fixed his gaze upon the small man before him, and howled, ‘Why did you kill her?’

The thing in his chest growled, snapped, exploded. His jaws were forced open as a gush of flame blazed from his throat. Red-yellow fire leapt into one of the Master’s instrument panels, the metal bubbling and twisting under the heat.

The Master’s face paled. Gonard glanced at the scorched cabinet, then turned his gaze back to the man. ‘Now I remember,’ the man whispered. ‘Now I remember what I created you for.’

‘You killed her,’ Gonard growled, his mind spinning.

Fear brightened the man’s eyes. A long instrument appeared in his hand—the same with which Gonard had seen him remove a hippogryph’s leg with one sweep of red light. The man lifted it, aiming the end at Gonard’s head. ‘She is not important. You are not important.’

The man’s words were cut off in a second blaze. The flames surrounded him, burrowing into his coat, dancing along his unruly hair. The black eyes teared, then melted to bone. And then, flesh gone, the bones themselves crisped, until all that was left to slump to the ground was a few bits of gristle and gutted muscles.

The remaining fire blasted into the floor, the hard material smoking and receding from the heat. Finally the chamber in his chest was empty, its deed done. The Master was dead.


The Gift of the Unicorn and other stories

Four short fantasy stories. An injured knight hunts a unicorn. A man breaks into a museum to steal a mammoth fossil. Names disappear from the world. And a dragon learns an uncomfortable truth about himself. Plus the first chapters of two full length novels.

  • ISBN: 9781310920721
  • Author: Chrys Cymri
  • Published: 2015-09-07 15:50:09
  • Words: 24232
The Gift of the Unicorn and other stories The Gift of the Unicorn and other stories